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DeSantis downplays concerns about the state of his 2024 campaign

Florida's governor tries to make dent in Trump’s support
CNN's Jake Tapper interviews Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday, July 18, 2023, in South Carolina.
Posted at 8:15 PM, Jul 18, 2023
and last updated 2023-07-18 22:09:32-04

Gov. Ron DeSantis, in an exclusive interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper on Tuesday, brushed aside concerns about the state of his presidential campaign, continued to downplay the conflict in Ukraine and steered clear of supporting national abortion restrictions similar to the six-week ban he signed in Florida.

In the interview, recorded shortly after Donald Trump announced on social media he was the target of an investigation into the January 6, 2021, insurrection, DeSantis remained upbeat about his chance of defeating the former president even as his campaign cuts staff and attempts a restart amid stalled polling and mounting expenses.

"They’ve been saying that I’ve been doing poorly for my whole time as governor, basically," DeSantis said.

Yet, DeSantis also may have explained why his campaign – built on a promise to rid so-called "wokeness" from society – has failed to carry the momentum he generated during his first term as governor and through his reelection victory last year.

Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, his wife, Casey, and their children attend a rodeo in Ponca, Okla., Saturday, June 10, 2023. (AP Photo/Thomas Beaumont)

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Commenting on a new plan released Tuesday for revamping the U.S. Department of Defense, DeSantis dismissed research presented by Tapper that showed "wokeness" was not high on the list of concerns among potential military recruits.

"Not everyone really knows what wokeness is," DeSantis said. "I mean, I’ve defined it, but a lotta people who rail against wokeness can’t even define it."

That disconnect is echoed in concerns by Republican donors and operatives, who have privately – and sometimes publicly – said that DeSantis is too focused on the priorities of the most conservative factions in his party, particularly those that speak loudest in digital spaces and the GOP speaking circuit.

DeSantis speeches are littered with "woke" references – once using the word five times in less than 20 seconds – and his wife has sported a leather "Where woke goes to die" jacket.

But instead of pivoting from his war on woke, DeSantis is instead sharpening his attacks as he seeks to make a dent in Trump’s support.

Earlier Tuesday, DeSantis said that Trump "could’ve come out more forcefully" to stop the insurrection on January 6, 2021. Later, he told CNN, "I don’t think it serves us good to have a presidential election focused on what happened four years ago in January."

Ahead of DeSantis’ event in West Columbia, Trump said in a social media post that he’s been informed by special counsel Jack Smith that he is a target of the criminal investigation into efforts to overturn the 2020 election.

A target letter from federal prosecutors to Trump makes clear that prosecutors are focused on Trump’s actions in the investigation into overturning the 2020 election – and not just those of the people around him who tried to stop his election loss.

"I wanna focus on looking forward. I don’t wanna look back," DeSantis said. "I do not wanna see him – I hope he doesn’t get charged. I don’t think it’ll be good for the country. But at the same time I’ve gotta focus on looking forward, and that’s what we’re gonna do."

The interview marked the first time DeSantis as a presidential candidate has sat down with a mainstream news outlet. DeSantis has largely avoided such interviews as governor, sticking to the safe confines of conservative media where the Florida Republican regularly enjoys glowing coverage and is rarely tested. He has ignored advisers who have repeatedly urged him over the years to introduce himself to new audiences and sharpen his oratory skills by facing tougher questions.

However, DeSantis lately has signaled a willingness to branch out as he looks to rebound from a slow start. His campaign has welcomed several national news outlets to his Tallahassee headquarters where reporters had access to top aides, and he has chatted with reporters at events around the country in recent weeks.

Trump allies sought to downplay DeSantis’ new warming toward media outlets he has long eschewed. In a statement sent out before the interview aired, Trump adviser Jason Miller called DeSantis an "unlikable candidate" with "no campaign message, and rapidly sinking poll numbers."

"The real story here is that the DeSantis campaign doesn’t know how to turn things around with their current candidate," Miller said.

Foreign policy

Some Republicans have also grilled DeSantis over his dismissal of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine as a "territorial dispute" not of "vital" national interest. On Tuesday, DeSantis doubled down, calling the war a "secondary or tertiary interest," though he said he would be "willing to be helpful to bring it to a conclusion."

"The goal should be a sustainable, enduring peace in Europe, but one that does not reward aggression," DeSantis said.

Asked by Tapper if he would stop arming Ukraine or sending financial support, DeSantis wouldn’t say. Instead, he advocated for turning the focus of the US military away from Europe and toward Asia and China.

"I am not gonna diminish our stocks and not send (them) to Taiwan. I’m not gonna make us less capable to respond to exigencies," DeSantis told Tapper, calling the Pacific island’s future a "significant interest."

Addressing his campaign

As DeSantis spoke to Republican voters in South Carolina on Tuesday, a new University of New Hampshire poll showed Trump maintained a double-digit lead over Desantis among likely Republican New Hampshire primary voters, 37% to 23%.

However, there were encouraging signs for DeSantis. The survey showed him in the top tier of the GOP field in terms favorability ratings at 57% along with South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott (56% favorable) and Vivek Ramaswamy (52%) while former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is making the Granite State a top priority, is viewed unfavorably by 64% of likely primary voters.

DeSantis told Tapper on Tuesday that he has the resources to compete in the face of reports from over the weekend about his financial position. Newly filed campaign finance reports showed DeSantis raised $20 million after entering the race in May through the end of June, more than all but Trump, and a supportive super PAC announced $120 million. However, DeSantis has also spent money at a higher rate than the rest of the field and was forced to cut staff.

About 90 people were on the DeSantis campaign payroll during the second quarter. Over the weekend, a spokesperson for DeSantis’ campaign confirmed to CNN it let go of some staffers, after Politico reported that “fewer than 10 staffers” in event planning were cut on Thursday.

"When you start there’s certain investments that you make. We really believe having an important apparatus on the ground is important in caucus states and in early states," DeSantis told reporters Tuesday morning, after filing paperwork to participate in the South Carolina primary. "Making investments and growing the ability to attract more supporters and all that, so that’s just kind of what you need to do."

Still unclear is how DeSantis will broaden his support in the GOP by challenging Trump from the right while still seeking to convince voters he is a more electable candidate than the former president.

DeSantis’ campaign took heat for recently shared a video slamming Trump’s previous promise to protect LGBTQ rights, including criticism from the Log Cabin Republicans, a group that represents LGBTQ conservatives, which called the video "divisive and desperate."

He continued to target transgender priorities on Tuesday in the rollout of his new military agenda by announcing he would ban transgender people from serving in the armed forces.

"“I would respect everybody, but what I wouldn’t do is turn society upside down to be able to accommodate, which is a very, very small percentage of the population," DeSantis told CNN.

Avoiding abortion talk

DeSantis this year signed a six-week abortion ban, earning him widespread praise from evangelicals who have outsized influence in the early nominating states of Iowa and South Carolina. However, the new restrictions have made DeSantis the face of Democrats’ efforts to paint the Republican Party as harmful to women.

DeSantis, though, pointed to his 19-point victory last fall in a one-time swing state as evidence that his agenda has broader appeal.

"Our bread and butter were people like suburban moms," he said. "We’re leading a big movement for parents’ rights, to have the parents be involved in education, school choice, get the indoctrination outta schools."

However, asked point blank if he would sign a six-week federal abortion ban, DeSantis wouldn’t answer "yes" or "no."

"I’m pro-life. I will be a pro-life president. And we will support pro-life policies," he said. "At the same time, I look at what’s going on in the Congress, and, you know, I don’t see them, you know, making very much headway. I think the danger from Congress is if we lose the election, they’re gonna try to nationalize abortion up until the moment of birth."