Since when is being politically popular a problem for an American politician?
Only when you’re the frontrunner – or possible leader – of a major party primary nomination race, that is. Throughout history there have been lots of “sure thing” type pols who ran for president only to eventually be caught – and passed – in their quest to be officially nominated.
In the 2000’s, the Republican party alone offered Scott Walker, Jeb Bush and Rudy Giuliani as examples of the phenomenon. All three were at one time considered to be in the preeminent position to win the primary race and take on the Democrats’ nominee in the general election. All flamed out – badly – and barely won any convention delegates when the voting began while blowing large amounts of campaign funds for little or no benefit.
Claiming frontrunner status isn’t always the best place to be in. If the past is a guide, this year’s “less-than-sure-thing” political show pony could be Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. In a piece titled “DeSantis is GOP’s early front-runner. That could be a problem”, the sometimes useful Alexander Bolton wrote at The Hill the other day:
“David Paleologos, the director of the political research center at Suffolk University, who conducted a poll last month showing that 61 percent of GOP and GOP-leaning voters prefer DeSantis over former President Trump, said the Florida governor faces an array of potential pitfalls if he runs for president.
“’The second-tier candidates have an incentive to make their No. 1 target DeSantis because they know the alt-Trump candidate in the Republican primary is the better and stronger choice in the general election,’ he said.
“He said early presidential front-runners in past elections have made the mistake of sitting on their lead in the polls and not competing aggressively enough in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary — likening it to a football team that plays a ‘prevent defense’ in the final minutes of the game…”
Let’s take a step back and note that DeSantis hasn’t indicated whether he intends to run or even that he’s thinking about it. Self-interested establishment media members ask him about his plans and he raised an impressive cash stash for his successful gubernatorial reelection campaign, but let’s not put the cart before the proverbial horse here. But for argument’s sake, we’ll assume Governor Ron is a lock to enter the fray later this year. Putting my political consultant hat on, if asked to anticipate the attack angles DeSantis’s primary opponents would employ, I’d suggest there are several. I’d be paid to see the future, mind you, so it wouldn’t behoove me to go easy on the guy who’s arguably the Republican party’s most popular contemporary politician (as of mid-January, 2023).
First, I would instruct DeSantis’s campaign brains, including the governor himself, to keep a close eye on whatever comes out of Donald Trump’s camp, even if it’s not directly related to DeSantis himself or the GOP race. The former president may have hit a low spot lately (with his Real Clear Politics favorable/unfavorable rating cratering at -20.5, which basically means he’s a little more unpopular than cackling Kamala Harris and a sizeable amount behind senile Joe Biden), but Trump still commands the balance of the media attention, so he controls the subject matter.
Trump’s current popularity figures are George W. Bush-like numbers from 2008, the final year of the wishy-washy conservative-bashing establishment president’s term, so they’re not good. This position essentially means Trump has lost all Democrats – which is no surprise – but he’s also lagging in Republican support. That’s not promising for someone vying to be the party’s presidential nominee, even if he does possess an extremely dedicated group of defenders.
The good news for Trump is it’s very early in the game and, all things considered, he doesn’t have that much ground to make up in a GOP primary race. Extending the horse race analogy, Trump stumbled out of the starting gate but he’s got plenty of distance in front of him to make up ground.
Trump’s campaign managers must be hard at work delving into DeSantis’s past to uncover possible weak points. Trump himself hinted not long ago that he has dirt on the Florida governor, though he hasn’t released anything publicly and the New Yorker’s mini-jab could’ve been intended to plant a seed in Republicans’ minds that there might be more than meets the eye concerning the popular figure who is running away with the imaginations of conservatives.
Second, DeSantis’s opponents may attack him personally – not his family, but his weight.
What? Ron DeSantis certainly isn’t fat. But Trump has put the “pudgy” ball in play and certainly someone, somewhere will run with it. None of the footage I’ve seen of DeSantis indicates he has a weight problem. He’s no Chris Christie, put it that way. And the former New Jersey governor’s portly status wasn’t a gross negative for his own candidacy in 2016. America has undergone its own battle with the waistline over the past several decades, and Ron DeSantis appears rather svelte by comparison to the regular clientele of a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise.
Who knows, Mike Pompeo could add his two cents on weight, the former Trump Secretary of State having lost a big number of pounds since he left office. The “new” Pompeo appears nothing like his former self, a transformation that was nearly as dramatic as Mike Huckabee’s trimming down was prior to the 2008 GOP campaign.
In this age where politics isn’t solely concerned with principles, platforms and ideas, small-minded folks could make DeSantis’s stature something to discuss. Or at least a political consultant might introduce the topic, right?
Third, DeSantis’s age would be employed to imply that he lacks experience.
What, you say? Barack Obama was around DeSantis’s age when he launched his successful presidential bid in 2007. But Obama was a “novel” (first major party African-American man to run with a chance to win) candidate who fabricated an inspiring life story to make himself interesting and to sell his candidacy as the embodiment of “Hope and Change”, a person who could alter the country and world with a mere swipe of his hand.
Democrats bought it, but Democrats don’t pay any mind to experience. At all. Instead, they care about optics and affirmative action and diversity, equity and inclusion. Barack Obama ranked high on every “woke” candidate list of the most qualified. His skin color, supposed simple upbringing and ability to present himself as the candidate of the future overcame Hillary Clinton’s “shatter the glass ceiling” intrinsic gender advantage with Democrat voters.
Joe Biden won in 2020 because he was painted by the Democrats as a “uniter” and a good guy. You know, it gave folks visions of Grampa Joe bouncing little ones on his knee while receiving a national security briefing-type stuff. Experience? He had gobs of it – at least of the Washington swamp variety. All senile Joe had to do was concoct some tale about a committee hearing in 1978 and Democrats would nod their heads and “ooh” and “ah” at his wealth of wisdom.
Ron DeSantis will turn 45 in September of this year, a relative tenderfoot by American political standards. Fellow Floridian Marco Rubio was DeSantis’s age (44) in 2015 and early 2016 and Trump and others derided the youthful freshman senator as too young and inexperienced to handle the presidency.
DeSantis is no Rubio, but the age – and experience – dilemma will unquestionably be brought up during the campaign season. Prior to entering politics, DeSantis served in the Navy JAG (Judge Advocate General) corps and did some time overseas in Iraq. As governor, he’s also been in the forefront of exposing Chinese influence in his state and combatting all things “woke” these days (including his recent move to stamp out Critical Race Theory in Florida colleges).
Governor Ron has enough foreign policy accomplishments to tout on his resume, and compared with someone like Barack Obama (when he first ran as a “community organizer”), DeSantis looks like a seasoned veteran on the world stage. Nevertheless, if there’s a place to make inroads against a frontrunner, this topic is likely the avenue.
My guess is Ron DeSantis will continue laying low while taking a keen interest in whatever’s going on in Washington under the newly sworn-in Republican House majority. It remains to be seen whether the national Republicans will take a page from DeSantis’s – and Donald Trump’s – book by actively battling the sorry direction established by the Democrats in the past few years.
As the recent dust-up in Congress amply revealed, Republicans and conservatives are craving the type of leader who will not only carry forward the cause of limited government, but also one who is talented enough to persuade the mostly indifferent American population to go along with his ideas.
Ron DeSantis may be seen as a “frontrunner” today, but can he keep the momentum going?
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