MIAMI - After declaring Donald Trump "missing in action" at last week's Republican presidential primary debate, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis followed up by taking shot after shot at the former president. He challenged Trump to a one-on-one debate, asserted the GOP front-runner's political shortcomings "turned Georgia and Arizona blue" and accused him of hiding from the campaign trail, a criticism akin to one Republicans levied against Joe Biden in 2020.
And at his campaign's online store - where DeSantis used to sell flip flops attacking Dr. Anthony Fauci and a sleeve of two golf balls proclaiming "Florida's governor has a pair" - people can now purchase "Trump's veto pen" for $7.8 trillion, a joke intended to draw attention to the Trump White House's contributions to the national debt.
It's all a part of a more aggressive approach DeSantis has taken in recent weeks, after months of dancing around whether to ignore or engage with the former president and as a fresh sense of urgency hangs over the race to try and slow Trump's march to the nomination.
Driving this stepped-up offensive are messages intended to convince Republicans that Trump is somehow unrecognizable compared to the figure who upended politics in 2016, nor the same person as the president who left the White House after defeat in 2021. Other 2024 hopefuls have similarly hoped to contrast Trump with his previous campaigns.
Noticeably absent, though, is any semblance of a clear frontal attack on Trump's pending criminal indictments and civil lawsuits from DeSantis - even as Trump on Monday was seated in a Manhattan courtroom for a trial over his company's alleged gross inflation of its assets. Instead, DeSantis targeted Trump over a 2016 campaign pledge to force Mexico to pay for a new wall at the border, calling it "an empty campaign slogan."
This new phase of the DeSantis campaign is taking shape with just over 100 days before the caucuses in Iowa, where a strong showing, if not outright victory, is paramount to DeSantis' viability. And it comes amid growing worries among conservative donors and operatives that Trump's lead in national polls and key nominating states is growing harder to overcome.
Still, the DeSantis campaign remains adamant that the race is far from settled and the timing of these recent broadsides is coming as 2024 is only just now coming into focus for many voters.
"The time for contrast was not over the summer when the government was going after (Trump)," said Ryan Tyson, a senior adviser to DeSantis' campaign.
Trump for his part said over the weekend at an Iowa rally that DeSantis' career is "toast" and called the Florida governor a "very injured falling bird" in the 2024 presidential race.
DeSantis on Trump: 'He's a different candidate'
The shift from DeSantis became apparent on a Monday afternoon in mid-September, when DeSantis called an influential Iowa reporter and, without much prodding, issued one of his most pointed attacks yet on Trump's position on abortion.
"I think he's changing in a way that is not consistent with the values of the people in Iowa," DeSantis told O'Kay Henderson of Radio Iowa, a statewide news network in Iowa, one day after the former president told NBC's "Meet the Press" that Florida's ban on the procedure after six weeks was "a terrible mistake."
Before ending his 11-minute interview, DeSantis declared: "I think all pro-lifers should know that he's preparing to sell you out."
Two days later, DeSantis doubled down, saying Trump was "taking positions that I think are different from what he took in 2015 when he first came onto the scene, and I do think he's a different candidate today than he was back then."
DeSantis is not alone in suggesting to voters that Trump has changed as Republicans search for ways to challenge the former president without alienating those who remember his four years in office fondly - or expose themselves to criticism for their own past support for his administration.
Former New Jersey Gov. Christie told CNN last month that Trump in 2016 "stood on the convention stage and said, 'I am your voice.' Today, he says, 'I am your retribution.' Those are two very different people." Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley recently said Trump "used to be good on foreign policy" but has gotten "weak in the knees." Former Vice President Mike Pence said he and his former running mate "governed like conservatives" but "Donald Trump makes no such promise today."
The Florida governor's efforts against Trump are backed up by a DeSantis-aligned super PAC, Never Back Down, which recently released a new ad in Iowa that was illustrative of the escalating push to draw contrasts between the two.
"We have a choice. One man worked his way through Yale and Harvard Law. One did not," the ad's narrator says. "One volunteered to serve his nation in wartime. One did not. One man stood up to Fauci and fought for freedom. One did not. One man won historic reelection, and one did not. One man is the right man to defeat Joe Biden."
The ad hit the airwaves just before the second GOP debate - the same point in the 2016 cycle that the influential conservative organization Club for Growth began running anti-Trump ads intended to slow his ascent.
One of those ads accused Trump of being a fake Republican who was "really just playing us for chumps," an argument that ultimately proved ineffective. Echoes of that criticism can be found today as Trump's opponents once again attempt to paint Trump as unprincipled, hoping voters this time will care.
Club for Growth president David McIntosh recently warned about the potential pitfalls of attacking Trump too aggressively. After spending $6 million on ads intended to weaken Trump's support in Iowa and South Carolina, Win It Back, a political action committee led by McIntosh, found that most traditional attacks left Trump largely unaffected, according to a memo to donors obtained by CNN.
"Every traditional post-production ad attacking President Trump either backfired or produced no impact on his ballot support and favorability," McIntosh wrote. "This includes ads that primarily feature video of him saying liberal or stupid comments from his own mouth."
A senior DeSantis campaign official disagreed with McIntosh's assessment of Win it Back's ads, telling CNN that the ads were ineffective at changing minds not because the message was poor but because they were tested as Trump faced multiple indictments. Republican support for Trump peaked during those periods, the official noted.
The official also insisted there's a difference between the 2015 case against Trump and the one DeSantis and others are now making.
"One says don't believe what you see, the other says the person you remember is no longer there," the adviser said. "The difference in what we're saying is that he is someone you remember that did so many wonderful things, when you look at that now, listen to him now, watch him and observe him, he's not able to do what he used to do. There's a difference in that."
The attacks on Trump are also coming sooner and are better funded than they were eight years ago. According to AdImpact data, anti-Trump ad spending has been significantly higher so far this cycle than in 2015, when Trump first ran for office. Republican campaigns and groups have spent about $8.2 million on anti-Trump advertising; through the same point in 2015, that total was just over $700,000.
A new phase
This new phase of the DeSantis campaign marks a significant departure from the spring and summer, when DeSantis did not always appear comfortable criticizing Trump. At times, DeSantis signaled he had sharpened his attacks, only to pull back punches - like when he poked fun at Trump's legal troubles stemming from an alleged hush money payment to an adult film star, but declined to do so again after facing blowback.
Before the first debate, Never Back Down advisers encouraged the campaign to defend, not attack, Trump if someone like Christie went after the former president.
That posture has since changed. At the second debate last week, Christie took the first shot at Trump for dodging the debate - and then DeSantis piled on.
"(Trump) should be on this stage tonight. He owes it to you to defend his record, where they added $7.8 trillion to the debt," DeSantis said. "That set the stage for the inflation that we have."
But challenges remain in changing minds.
Ethan Masters, a 21-year-old Iowan who came away impressed by DeSantis during a recent event in rural northwest Iowa, thought attacking Trump at the debate was a "mistake."
"Donald Trump's thing is attacking people," Masters said. "If you try and match it, you'll just look like you're trying to steal his thing."
Shellie Flockhart, vice chair of the Moms for Liberty chapter in Dallas County, Iowa, also found DeSantis' assertions that Trump has abandoned conservatives on abortion unconvincing.
"Trump is the one who did the impossible of (overturning) Roe v. Wade," said Flockhart, who made clear she didn't speak on behalf of her organization. "Now it's in the states' hands. We can't push too far, too fast. I don't believe he ever meant that banning abortion is bad. But I do believe he was saying DeSantis' strategy in that and trying to get voted in as president was a 'terrible mistake' - just a bad strategy."
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