Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is suddenly facing a rash of attacks within the nascent GOP presidential field, with former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) seeking to quash his candidacy before it even starts.
Christie, who is openly mulling a 2024 bid of his own after ending far back in the pack during the last competitive GOP cycle, is seizing on signs that DeSantis may be losing steam ahead of his widely expected campaign launch this spring.
Christie has pounced on DeSantis over the Florida governor’s ongoing battle with Disney and some of his remarks toward Trump — jabs that come amid an already difficult week for DeSantis, who has seen many of his state’s GOP lawmakers steadily endorse Trump.
In many ways, the effort hearkens to the 2016 cycle when Christie delivered a stinging blow to then-primary rival Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) during a GOP presidential debate shortly before the New Hampshire primary as he blasted Rubio over his “memorized 25-second speech.”
This time around, Christie and DeSantis have yet to formally declare a 2024 bid. But that moment is still very much top-of-mind for Christie as he surveys the current GOP field.
“You better have somebody on that stage who can do to [Trump] what I did to Marco [Rubio] because that’s the only thing that’s gonna defeat Donald Trump,” Christie said during a town hall in New Hampshire last month.
While Republicans concede it hasn’t been a good week for DeSantis, they caution there’s still plenty of time for the GOP presidential field to evolve ahead of the first primaries and as neither man has announced a White House bid.
“I think Christie is clearly curious about another run for the White House. I think he wants to demonstrate his seriousness by showing that he’s not afraid to take shots at his would-be opponents,” said Alex Conant, who worked on Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Christie kept his name in the headlines this week, appearing at a Semafor event, on the Republican strategist-run “Ruthless” podcast, and in the early presidential primary state of New Hampshire.
The 2016 presidential candidate took aim at DeSantis over how he’s been handling his feud with Disney after the corporate company criticized the Florida governor on legislation he signed last year that curbed classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation in certain grade levels.
The Florida Board of Education approved this week DeSantis’s proposal to expand the law to classrooms up to 12th grade.
DeSantis sought to punish Disney by installing board members that would take the helm of the tax district that oversees the corporate company. But the entertainment giant took steps before the state’s takeover to reduce the district’s authority over Disney, dealing a blow to the governor’s aim of controlling Disney.
“If he was so offended by the Reedy Creek District, why didn’t he do something the whole first four years he was there? It’s not like — don’t tell me that the governor of Florida didn’t know that Disney had its own governing body. ‘Cause if he didn’t, then he’s an incompetent,” Christie said on a Wednesday episode of “Ruthless.”
During a separate interview with Politico Playbook published on Thursday, he suggested DeSantis’s quip toward Trump regarding allegations Trump had an affair with a porn star were “way too subtle.”
“This is a guy who said Ted Cruz’s wife was ugly. Like, you think he cares that you made a little sideswipe at him?” Christie told the news outlet.
Of course, Christie hasn’t stopped taking aim at the former president either, including during a stop in New Hampshire when he compared Trump to Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter series.
But the former New Jersey governor’s jabs have come as DeSantis has seen his polling numbers drop, Republicans pile on criticism over his handling of the Disney feud, and members of the Florida House GOP delegation steadily endorse Trump.
“The comments that Gov. Christie was giving credence to is ‘it might not make sense to have all of our eggs in just this one basket and that basket being Ron DeSantis, who’s never run on the national stage before,’” said GOP strategist Colin Reed, who served as a spokesman for Christie when he was governor.
Still, Reed acknowledged although it hadn’t been a great week for DeSantis, “rumors of his political demise are grossly exaggerated.”
Meanwhile, other Republican strategists said they weren’t buying Christie’s strategy to hit DeSantis.
“This feels like a bit of a 2016 redux where candidates … did not go after the poll-sitter in an effort to move him to second place. Seems to me as though … if Trump is the prohibitive favorite at this point, you have to go after Trump, not the guy in second place,” said Brian Seitchik, a Trump campaign alum and Arizona-based GOP strategist.
DeSantis’s political team largely brushed off Christie’s attacks, questioning his objectivity as an ABC News commentator.
“Ron DeSantis has been leading the fight to protect people from the left’s disastrous policies, not just talking about it from ABC’s Disney-funded TV studios,” said Dave Abrams, spokesperson for DeSantis’s political team, in a statement.
Regardless of whether Republicans agree with Christie’s moves to take swipes at DeSantis, Christie’s jabs coincided with a tough week for DeSantis who was in D.C. and mingled with some of his former colleagues, only to see more of them announce their support for Trump.
“He’s got a bunch of Florida members of Congress endorsing Trump, which is not supposed to happen if you’re a popular governor of your home state. You’re not supposed to be endorsing someone else,” said Michael DuHaime, who served as Christie’s lead strategist during his gubernatorial campaigns.
DeSantis also took a hit this week for his appearances outside of Florida while parts of the state saw serious flooding, gas shortages and rising gas prices, said GOP strategist Doug Heye.
“DeSantis handled the hurricane so well. And there were a lot of questions … whether he even talks to Biden, much less be seen with him — he handled it perfectly,” Heye said. “And yet, when a big part of the country’s attention is being paid to that state on something specific, he was absent from the conversation.”
Yet, some Republicans caution against writing the eulogy for DeSantis’s presidential bid before it’s even been announced, saying there’s still plenty of time before the debates and primaries ahead. Likening it to the iconic boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, Heye suggested one possibility is that DeSantis is playing the long game.
“Foreman’s punches became less and less effective — ‘DeSanctimonious,’ same thing,” Heye said, referring to Trump’s nickname for DeSantis. “And when Ali saw his moment, he struck. And if that’s DeSantis’s strategy — we don’t know that — but if it is, that may work or may not work, but it’s a strategy and tells us that they’re being methodical about this.”
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