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For months Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has grappled with a key strategic question: How does he take on Donald Trump in a way that doesn’t alienate a Republican base that worships the former president.
On Wednesday night, with his campaign in the doldrums and with time and options running out, he sharpened his approach.
He used his first answer in the second Republican debate to slam Trump for avoiding the confrontation with other candidates and for adding to the national debt while serving as president.
‘Donald Trump is missing an action,’ he said. ‘He should be on this stage tonight.
‘He owes it to you to defend his record where they added $7.8 trillion to the debt that set the stage for the inflation that we have.’
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis took an early shot at Donald Trump and had a stronger night than during the first debate in Milwaukee last month
His campaign insists DeSantis is well-positioned to start picking up support when other candidates start dropping out.
Yet at the same time allies fear he is running out of time to haul in the frontrunner. They have despaired of the way DeSantis tried to outflank Trump on the right, running on his ‘war on woke,’ going into battle with Disney and taking a hardline approach on abortion.
With his poll numbers sinking, on Wednesday he did what they had long urged him: Talked up his successes in Florida as a template for how he would run the nation.
He soaked up attacks on foreign policy, health insurance in Florida and his opposition to fracking but managed to avoid getting sucked into the crosstalk of rivals jostling for airtime.
He came out on top in terms of speaking time with 12 minutes and 27 seconds, according to the New York Times tracker.
Top DeSantis donor Dan Eberhart said it might still not be enough with Trump so far out ahead and no-one landing a killer blow.
‘I think Governor DeSantis won but I think it’s only half of what needs to happen,’ he said.
‘If you if you don’t want Trump you need two or three people to get out of this race, and then the media has got to write momentum stories.
‘Or there’s not even a David and Goliath contest.’
Seven candidates took part in the debate but frontrunner Donald Trump stayed away again
Trump instead spoked an an automotive parts manufacturer in Clinton, Michigan
DeSantis was long seen as the most likely candidate to beat Trump to the nomination. But that was before he entered the race.
The Florida governor has seen his standing fall after a disastrous launch on Twitter Spaces (when a surge in listeners crashed servers) and a series of campaign missteps.
Recent polls have seen him slide in key early states. A CNN/University of New Hampshire put him in fifth place this week in the Granite State, behind not only Trump but tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Last month’s debate in Milwaukee offered an opportunity to re-establish himself with voters, but it was an opportunity missed.
He disappeared from sight at times, careful to avoid a misstep while his rivals took the opportunity to bash Trump and each other.
It was still enough to emerge as second best performer in a post-debate poll conducted for DailyMail.com
He looked more assured this time around, said Republican strategist John Feehery.
‘His answer on abortion was pretty good,’ he said, referring to DeSantis’ defense of his hardline position. ‘For the Republican base I thought he did pretty well … much better than the last one.
‘Outside of Trump for staying away, I’ll give him the clear victory.
Seven Republican candidates took the stage at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. DeSantis got the prime spot in the center of the line-up
The candidates walk out on stage at the Reagan Presidential Library on Wednesday night
His team is confident that he remains the only candidate with the status to beat Trump. They see him picking up support as other runners drop out and their backers switch to the only candidate with the financial muscle and ground game to run all the way through next year.
Their metric revolves around polling suggesting that DeSantis is the second choice of most supporters of other candidates. Each time one drops out, they estimate that they will pick up seven in 10 of their supporters; while the rest will go mostly to Trump.
But for that to happen, people need to start dropping out and start dropping out fast.
DeSantis tried to use his platform to cast himself as the best placed to make things happen.
‘I’m the only one up here who’s gotten into big fights and delivered big victories for the people of Florida,’ he said. ‘And that’s what it’s all about. You can always talk but when it gets hot in there when they’re shooting arrows at you. Are you going to be stand up for parents rights, keep the state free?
‘Are you going to be able to do all those things and in the state of Florida because of our success the Democratic Party lies in ruins.’