Trump-DeSantis rivalry approaches boiling point

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The long-simmering tensions between former President Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) are nearing a boiling point amid signs that DeSantis and his team are actively moving toward a 2024 presidential run. 

DeSantis’s national ambitions have long irked Trump, who sees himself as the Florida governor’s political benefactor and the GOP’s presumptive 2024 nominee. But Trump’s frustration became more apparent over the weekend, when he called out DeSantis during his first major campaign swing. 

“If he runs, that’s fine. I’m way up in the polls. He’s going to have to do what he wants to do, but he may run,” Trump told The Associated Press in an interview after a campaign appearance in South Carolina on Saturday. “I do think it would be a great act of disloyalty because, you know, I got him in. He had no chance. His political life was over.”

It wasn’t the first time that Trump took direct aim at DeSantis, but his latest comments come amid signs that the Florida governor’s presidential ambitions may be taking on a more tangible form.

Advisers to DeSantis have begun reaching out to potential hires, including several veteran Republican staffers and operatives, according to a person familiar with the moves. The Washington Post reported over the weekend that two top DeSantis campaign veterans — Phil Cox and Generra Peck — were involved in discussions about a 2024 run. 

DeSantis, who has largely avoided talking about any potential 2024 plans, hasn’t yet made a final decision on a run, though Republicans almost unanimously believe that a presidential campaign is a near-certainty, with a potential announcement expected later this year after the Florida state legislative session wraps up.

That belief has put him and Trump on an almost-inevitable collision course as they vie for dominance within the GOP. 

“I do think DeSantis is going to run. Ninety-eight percent chance,” one Florida Republican operative said. “If you’re DeSantis, I think you’d love to wait until 2028. But you have a particular window. You have to keep the name ID up.”

“On the other hand, I think Donald Trump knows this is his last chance to run,” the operative added. “The idea of trying again in four years — that’s just too much of a reach, even for him.”

Regardless of whether DeSantis eventually launches a campaign, Trump’s patience appears to be wearing thin. 

In addition to criticizing DeSantis’s loyalty over the weekend, Trump also accused him of “trying to rewrite history” when it came to his response to the COVID-19 outbreak, telling reporters that “Florida was closed for a long period of time” at the onset of the pandemic.

DeSantis’s laissez faire approach to the pandemic and stiff opposition to public health mandates and restrictions have been at the center of his rise to national prominence. He has also been openly skeptical of COVID-19 vaccines, drawing scorn from Trump, who accused DeSantis of flip-flopping on the issue.

DeSantis’s campaign did not respond to The Hill’s request for comment on Trump’s remarks.

While Trump has brushed off the notion that DeSantis could pose a serious threat to his 2024 ambitions, it’s hard to overlook some of the challenges the former president is facing as he looks to claw his way back to the White House.

Trump is only now beginning to ramp up his 2024 campaign after a relatively sleepy start back in November, and he’s still facing criticism from some Republicans over the party’s lackluster performance in the 2022 midterms.

At the same time, early polling suggests that his support within the GOP may be softening. Several recent surveys have shown DeSantis leading him in a hypothetical head-to-head primary match-up, and a growing number of Republicans say that Trump shouldn’t run for president again.

“I think there’s the sense that you have a lot of Republicans who like Trump but have a sense it’s time to move on, either because they think he can’t win or the drama has worn them down, as well,” said Dallas Woodhouse, a longtime Republican operative and the executive director of the South Carolina Policy Council.

Woodhouse’s group commissioned a poll earlier this month that showed DeSantis leading Trump by 19 points in a hypothetical match-up. That poll also found that only 37 percent of likely South Carolina Republican primary voters want the GOP to nominate Trump again, while 47 percent said they would prefer someone else.

Another poll released last week by the University of New Hampshire found that 46 percent of Republican voters in the critical first-in-the-nation primary state believe that Trump should be running for the presidency again, while 50 percent said he should not.

Trump, meanwhile, has pushed back on the notion that his 2024 campaign is floundering. On Saturday, he rolled out his campaign’s state leadership team in South Carolina — a list that included prominent Republicans like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Gov. Henry McMaster (R) — and swung through New Hampshire for a speech to state GOP officials.

He also hinted that he soon plans to return to holding massive rallies — something that has so far been absent from his campaign.

“They said: ‘He’s not doing rallies, he’s not campaigning. Maybe he’s lost that step,’ ” Trump said during his stop in New Hampshire. “I’m more angry now and I’m more committed now than I ever was.”

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