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Philip Wegmann Opinion: Amid Tech Glitches, DeSantis Enters Race, Hits Trump

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The night began and ended with technical difficulties.

Ron DeSantis declared his presidential candidacy during a Twitter livestream with Elon Musk that repeatedly crashed, delaying his long-expected announcement and marring his introduction to a national audience.

Another interview later in the evening, this one with conservative radio host Mark Levin, was punctuated by more awkward silences as the Florida governor’s phone line cut in and out.

And yet, while the system bugs were ugly, the money was anything but. The DeSantis campaign announced it had raised a million dollars in the first hour of his candidacy. And if the rollout was less than smooth, DeSantis still managed to preview his policy resume at length. “He literally busted up the Internet,” a spokesman crowed at the end of the night. “Washington is next.”

DeSantis had hinted at his White House ambitions for months before filing paperwork with the Federal Election Commission to officially jump in the race. The two-term governor now joins a still expanding Republican field where he has been touted as Donald Trump’s most serious challenger, though he trails the frontrunner by 34 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics poll average. Despite that advantage, Trump World sees this onetime acolyte as the primary threat. MAGA Inc., a super PAC supporting the former president, spent more than $15 million to attack DeSantis before he even became a declared candidate.

Allies of DeSantis feel confident, however, that because he weathered those early attacks, the coming primary will be a true contest for the 2024 Republican nomination, not a Trump coronation.

More than 600,000 viewers tuned in to hear DeSantis make his introduction. And then they waited. Musk and fellow investor David Sacks fumbled behind the scenes to make the livestream work as the 2024 hopeful stood by. When the feed picked up almost half an hour later, DeSantis explained he was “running for president to lead our great American comeback,” pitching his work in Florida as a readymade blueprint for national renewal.

“Look, we know our country is going in the wrong direction,” he said, “we see it with our eyes, and we feel it in our bones.” According to DeSantis, his party needs to toughen up, look to the future, and “end the culture of losing that has infected the Republican Party in recent years.” He promised results because, among other reasons, “I don’t care about fanfare.”

It was an implicit critique of Trump for focusing on previous grievances or his own celebrity. DeSantis did not say Trump’s name during the livestream or during a Fox News interview afterwards with former South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy.

Other candidates have generally done the same for fear that hitting Trump could alienate the MAGA base. But DeSantis is less afraid to take a shot. A broadside against the former president just wasn’t his immediate priority. He criticized Trump for the first time as a candidate during a late-night press conference, saying in response to a question from a RealClearPolitics correspondent that his opponent is the candidate of “omnibus” spending bills and “amnesty.”

In his most specific policy criticism to date, DeSantis said that Trump was responsible for ballooning the national debt while in office and for trying to get conservatives to go along with a plan to legalize millions of illegal immigrants.

“So, he’s drawing, I think, a helpful contrast with me now. He’s running attacks, attacking me for voting against an omnibus spending bill that he signed when he was president,” DeSantis added, referencing a recent campaign ad by MAGA Inc. alleging that he had opposed border wall funding while in Congress.

“Absolutely, I think he should not have signed those omnibus spending bills. He added almost $8 trillion to the debt in a four-year period of time. I’m happy to be on the conservative side of that debate because I think our debt’s gone up way too much,” the governor said.

“He also attacked me for voting against an amnesty bill that he had endorsed, a 2-millon person amnesty bill, Goodlatte 2.0, in 2018. And he said that it was ‘voting against the wall.’ But if you remember, that bill was like a pittance … in exchange for a massive amnesty,” he continued.

The new candidate then directed his sharpest barb yet at Trump: “I thought it was supposed to be America First policy to oppose amnesty, and yet he endorsed and tried to ram through an amnesty.”

Trump aides did not spend much time focusing on the policy positions of their newest challenger, other than to accuse DeSantis of appropriating Trump’s own proposals and passing them off as his own. They focused on the technical difficulties instead. Trump mocked Musk and DeSantis by posting a video clip of a SpaceX rocket exploding on the launch pad. President Biden’s campaign took its own shot. When the Twitter stream was crashing, staffers wrote that “this link works” – directing supporters to a website where they could donate to the Democrat.

See also  Ron DeSantis Commits Record Increases to Teacher Pay

DeSantis is an obvious target for both Trump and Biden: He has a massive war chest that could cause trouble for one, or both, of them. Across his campaign accounts, Politico previously reported, the governor has more than $100 million on hand, a fundraising haul buoyed by donors who believe DeSantis is more electable and competent than Trump.

(link “Politico” to https://www.politico.com/news/2023/04/28/desantis-trump-money-00094205)

“We won in 2016 because people hated Hillary, and the Democrats didn’t even want her,” Hal Lambert, a GOP mega donor who recently ditched the former president for DeSantis, told RCP. He likened that dynamic to the current situation, calling it “the same scenario” and insisting that “the left hates Trump, and a lot of Republicans don’t really want him either.”

DeSantis can win the White House, his allies argue, and bring Republican majorities to Congress with him. Ken Cuccinelli, a former Trump official who launched a pro-DeSantis super PAC earlier this year, told RCP that if the governor becomes the nominee, there will be “a blow-out year in 2024 for Republicans at every level of government.”

Christian Ziegler saw the evidence firsthand. The chairman of the Florida Republican Party is not endorsing any candidate in the primary, but he told RCP that he watched DeSantis win reelection and secure Republican majorities in the state legislature by going “hard conservative.”

“For four years, the press, and everyone talking to me, said, ‘That’s a bad strategy. People are going to revolt and push back,’” Ziegler recalled. “We actually saw the opposite.” He expected DeSantis to win, he said, but “if you had told me a year ago that he’d win reelection by five or six points, I’d have thought you were clinically insane.” The governor won by 19.4 percentage points, the largest margin in 40 years.

Previous success couldn’t distract entirely from the technical failures of Musk, though. “Twitter can’t handle the traffic,” an influential DeSantis donor texted RCP as the delay dragged on. “Not good.”

Once the feed was up and running, and then throughout the night, DeSantis quickly made clear he would not retreat from the culture wars that endear him to conservatives.

He attacked “legacy media” as corrupt and accused “elites” of being “hysterical.” He defended his clash with the Walt Disney Co. over its opposition to a Florida law that prohibits public schools from discussing sexual orientation with children in kindergarten through third grade, dismissing Republicans who shied away from the fight as “corporatists.” He didn’t back away from the six-week abortion ban he signed into law, signaling also that he believes “both the federal and states” have a role to play in additional regulation.

DeSantis cautioned that the renewal he wants at the federal level won’t happen quickly. He told Levin that to truly reform government “you really need two terms,” a reference to the fact that Trump would be constitutionally limited to just serving one. And he also espoused a more muscular theory of the executive branch, telling the talk show host that the Founding Fathers wouldn’t allow federal agencies to “do whatever the hell they wanted” despite the orders of the president. With this, he seemed to preview another coming attack on Trump: The 45th president hired the wrong people.

DeSantis blamed the Federal Reserve, now helmed by Trump appointee Jerome Powell, for making inflation worse. He also promised to fire another Trump hire: He said he would replace FBI Director Christopher Wray “on Day One.”

Unused to being criticized from the right, Trump loyalists chaffed under this kind of criticism. The campaign noted on Twitter that DeSantis had supported the previous president’s nomination of Wray. And beyond delighting in the evening’s tech blunders, some seemed to take the newly declared candidacy as a personal affront. Former New York City Mayor and Trump confidant Rudy Giuliani said the fact DeSantis was running for president demonstrates “his ambition overcoming basic values like loyalty.”

Rep. Chip Roy, a Texas Republican who has become DeSantis’ most vocal surrogate in Congress, condemned “the idea that someone should get anointed” as “the worst kind of un-American claptrap.”

“As citizens of this country,” Roy said in an interview with RCP before the announcement, “we have loyalty to the Constitution and to God. We do not have a loyalty to princes in this country.”

This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.

(link “RealClearWire” to https://www.realclearwire.com/articles/2023/05/25/amid_tech_glitches_desantis_enters_race_hits_trump__149278.html)

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