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Ron DeSantis super PAC debate memo advises him to defend Trump and "hammer" Ramaswamy

Trump, DeSantis campaign in Iowa
Trump repeats 2020 falsehoods at Iowa State Fair, DeSantis sees mix of reactions from voters 04:53

A Republican firm with ties to a super-PAC supporting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' presidential campaign is suggesting DeSantis should "take a sledgehammer" to biotech entrepreneur and presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy and defend former President Donald Trump "in absentia" if former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie attacks Trump on the debate stage

This debate strategy is included in an expansive set of polling and opposition research, as well as an overarching memo on debate strategy, that was posted on the "Axiom Strategies" website ahead of next Wednesday's Republican debate in Milwaukee. This was first reported on by The New York Times. Axiom Strategies was founded and is led by GOP strategist Jeff Roe, who is a top advisor on the pro-DeSantis super PAC "Never Back Down."

The New York Times reported after they inquired Thursday about the overarching debate strategy memo, it was removed from the Axiom Strategies website. A copy of the memo in full was posted by The New York Times and NBC News but has not yet been independently verified by CBS News. 

Other documents such as internal polling in New Hampshire and Iowa and research on how other candidates will attack DeSantis, were up until late afternoon on Thursday. These posted documents include research dedicated to Ramaswamy, Christie, former Vice President Mike Pence, former United States Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum. The document dedicated to Haley was the longest, with 30 pages of her criticism of DeSantis' battle with Disney and on the Ukraine war with Russia.

Presidential Hopefuls Make The Rounds At The Iowa State Fair
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis takes the stage during one of Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds' "Fair-Side Chats" at the Iowa State Fair on August 12, 2023 in Des Moines, Iowa.  Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Missing from these documents is research on Trump, who has not yet committed to attending or skipping the debate. 

"This was not a campaign memo and we were not aware of it prior to the article. We are well accustomed to the attacks from all sides, as the media and other candidates realize Ron DeSantis is the strongest candidate best positioned to take down Joe Biden," said DeSantis campaign spokesperson Andrew Romeo.

CBS News has reached out to Never Back Down and the DeSantis campaign for any comment. 

What did the memo recommend to DeSantis?

The main debate strategy memo, posted by The New York Times, was dated August 15 and is directed to "Interested Parties" from "NBD," the abbreviation for the pro-DeSantis "Never Back Down" PAC. It refers to DeSantis as "GRD" and lays out four "basic must-dos":

"1. Attack Joe Biden and the media 3-5 times.

2. State GRD's positive vision 2-3 times.

3. Hammer Vivek Ramaswamy in a response.

4. Defend Donald Trump in absentia in response to a Chris Christie attack."

The memo then quoted the late Fox News chairman and CEO Roger Ailes and his "Orchestra Pit Theory," where he states that on a debate stage that a candidate who "falls in the orchestra pit" will get more coverage than a candidate who talks about foreign policy. 

It listed four "potential orchestra-pit moments" for DeSantis. One read, "Take a sledge-hammer to Vivek Ramaswamy" and entertained the nicknames of "Fake Vivek" or "Vivek the Fake." A separate 12-page document on the Axiom Strategies website titled "How Ramaswamy Attacks DeSantis" lists past criticism on DeSantis from Ramaswamy, on his battle with Disney and his overall war against "woke" ideology. 

"Vivek's job on Aug 23 is to introduce himself and his vision to the American people. These boring, canned attack lines from a robotic candidate doesn't change that. If DeSantis struggles to use a spoon, I can't imagine he is particularly agile with a sledgehammer," said Ramaswamy campaign spokesperson Tricia McLaughlin. 

Another "potential orchestra-pit moment" listed in the memo is to "defend Trump when Chris Christie attacks him," and suggested a response line that plays on Trump skipping the debate. 

"Trump isn't here so let's just leave him alone. He's too weak to defend himself here. We're all running against him. I don't think we want to join forces with someone on this stage who's auditioning for a show on MSNBC," the memo read. 

The other "potential orchestra-pit moments" listed include invoking a story about his family and wife Casey ("showing emotion") and another talking about a "carrying the torch" message that hones in on "non-stop" attacks Trump received and provoked. 

"Trump's drama pitted brother against brother, friend against friend. He's got so many distractions that it's almost impossible for him to focus on moving the country forward," the memo read. "We need someone who is going to take the torch and carry it to the next chapter. I'm the only one on this stage who will do that, who can do that, and who will keep the movement that Donald Trump started going."

The memo ends with a link to a 60-second ad by the "Win It Back" PAC, an anti-Trump super PAC associated with the Club for Growth organization, that is centered around a voter that supported Trump in 2016 and 2020 that says Trump has "so many distractions... and I'm not sure he can focus on moving the country forward."

Super PACs and presidential campaigns are barred legally from coordination on strategy, but PACs have previously posted memos, polling and documents online so that a campaign can access it. Republican Senator J.D. Vance's 2022 campaign is an example of this, when a super PAC supporting him posted polling and memos on a public, but hard to find, website, according to Politico reporting.

What does polling on Desantis say?

Other documents posted on the Axiom website include an early August poll conducted in New Hampshire that shows a total of 34% of respondents either lean toward, are probably voting for or are definitely voting for Trump, while a total of 16% lean toward, are probably voting for or are definitely voting for DeSantis. Ramaswamy is third in this internal polling with a total of 11% and Scott is fourth at 6%.

This same poll tested messaging in two ads, made by the Americans for Prosperity Action organization, that suggested nominating Trump could result in Republicans losing in 2024. Among the respondents that had seen these ads, at least 30% said it makes no difference on whether they vote against Trump, while 10% said it would make them more likely to vote against him. It also polled a Christie ad critical of Trump, and found 16% of respondents that had seen the ad were less likely to vote for Christie after seeing it.

Their New Hampshire polling found that DeSantis trailed Trump by 10 points in a head-to-head matchup, closer than the 13-point gap that separated the two in their June polling and more than their April polling, before DeSantis launched his campaign. Scott polled closer to Trump in a head-to-head, trailing him by 6 points. 

The internal polling also showed that the percentage of voters that support or lean toward Trump has decreased 10 points since June, and by 5 points for DeSantis. 

Another document titled "Iowa Analysis" states that DeSantis is lagging Trump by 8 points, and that persuadable voters "are splitting equally between Trump and DeSantis." 

How is Governor DeSantis preparing for the debate?

The DeSantis campaign has been preparing for attacks from other candidates towards the governor next Wednesday, according to people familiar with his campaign's debate strategy. Brett O'Donnell, a veteran Republican debate coach that led John McCain's 2008 presidential run, has led debate prep for DeSantis and has done weekly debate prep sessions with the governor.

Fundraisers and donors supporting DeSantis have also been getting debate preview calls in recent weeks led by DeSantis campaign pollster Ryan Tyson, according to two people that have been on these calls. 

"Republicans, Democrats, and the legacy media are united in their full-on assault of Ron DeSantis because he is the only candidate who can beat Joe Biden. We fully expect the onslaught of attacks to reach a new level on the debate stage next week, but taking arrows on behalf of the American people is nothing new for DeSantis," said DeSantis campaign spokesperson Andrew Romeo when asked about the debate. 

They've also been getting ready for either scenario on whether Trump attends the debate or not. On Wednesday, Never Back Down put out a digital video taunting Trump for potentially skipping the debate, saying "We can't afford a nominee who's too weak to debate."

Ahead of next Wednesday, DeSantis and his campaign have been highlighting Trump's potential absence on the first debate stage. The campaign has conducted polls in the four presidential primary states that show a majority of GOP voters want Trump to debate in Milwaukee and agreed with the statement that "skipping the debate makes him look weak." This was first reported by ABC.

Since launching, DeSantis and campaign have argued the GOP contest is a "two-man race" between DeSantis and Trump, despite the field growing bigger.  

"There'll be some differences whether he's there or not, but by and large we expect to be the guy that fields the most attacks," DeSantis said on Fox Radio on Wednesday. "I'm the only guy that Trump's campaign attacks basically and then the other candidates, a lot of them don't really say much about Donald Trump and they focus more on me."

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