Round one: Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump launch rhetorical brawl for Republican nomination

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WASHINGTON – It's on in the GOP.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is starting to fight back, verbally, against former President Donald Trump.

After months of ignoring Trump's barbs, DeSantis is engaging the ex-president over leadership, character and the ability to win elections. So begins a political battle that may dominate and decide the 2024 Republican presidential race.

"You know, you can call me whatever you want," DeSantis told television host Piers Morgan in an interview to air Thursday. "I mean, just as long as you, you know, also call me a winner.”

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Trump responded by again mangling and making fun of the governor's name – "Ron DeSanctimonious" – and saying he "is not working for the people of Florida as he should be, he is too busy chatting with a Ratings Challenged TV Host from England."

An angry GOP?

Amid the escalating Trump-DeSantis feud, Democrats are joyful and Republicans are concerned: The bickering augurs a brutal and divisive primary that could weaken Republican general election campaigns for the White House and Congress.

"There's already anger within the GOP," pollster Frank Luntz said. "But this takes it to a new level."

President Donald Trump arrives on Air Force One greeted by Governor Ron DeSantis at Palm Beach International Airport in West Palm Beach, Florida on Tuesday November 26, 2019.
President Donald Trump arrives on Air Force One greeted by Governor Ron DeSantis at Palm Beach International Airport in West Palm Beach, Florida on Tuesday November 26, 2019.

Democratic strategist Josh Schwerin said, "the longer and messier the Republican primary is, the better it is for Democrats. ... They (Republicans) are all trying to win the primary even if it means losing the general."

The issues between Trump and DeSantis are many.

Hush money, porn star

DeSantis began talking back to Trump at a time when the former president faces a possible indictment in New York City in a case that revolves around hush money payments to a former adult film star.

To be sure, DeSantis criticized the potential prosecution as politically motivated. He also felt the need to detail the sordid allegation, telling reporters that, "I don't know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair."


In the Piers Morgan interview, DeSantis discussed character.

"It’s not saying that you don’t ever make a mistake in your personal life, but I think what type of character are you bringing?” DeSantis said. “I think the person is more about how you handle your public duties and the kind of character you bring to that endeavor.”

DeSantis, who has not formally announced his candidacy but seems to be warming up for it, also mentioned "leadership" in a contrast with Trump.

"The way we run the government, I think, is no daily drama," DeSantis said. "Focus on the big picture and put points on the board, and I think that’s something that’s very important.”

Public Relations

Trump has responded in notably nasty way, all but accusing DeSantis of inappropriate behavior during his year as a high school teacher, never mind a total lack of evidence or allegation.

The Trump team has also made a state ethics complaint against DeSantis, claiming he is busy running for president rather than tending to the needs of Floridians.

In a written statement, Trump said DeSantis "is finally admitting he’s in the Race by beginning to fight back." Trump, a Palm Beach resident and constituent of DeSantis, again attacked the Florida governor over proposals on Social Security, Medicare, crime and education.

"Ron is an average Governor, but the best by far in the Country in one category, Public Relations," Trump said.

Gloves off

The DeSantis interview is scheduled to air Thursday on the Fox Nation program "Piers Morgan Uncensored," though the program and Morgan have offered previews of DeSantis' comments.

In a column for The New York Post, Morgan promoted his interview by saying that the Florida governor "has finally taken the gloves off and launched a blistering attack on his former mentor, former President Donald Trump."

During the session, DeSantis drew a contrast with Trump over the COVID pandemic during 2020. The Florida governor said he would have dismissed health adviser Anthony Fauci, while Trump kept him on.

While DeSantis casts himself as a pioneer in the reopening of schools and businesses, opponents said he put Floridians' lives at risk in the pursuit of politics.

In his statement, Trump said DeSantis is exaggerating his record with regard to the pandemic and that "Ron was a big Lockdown Governor ... sealing all beaches and everything else for an extended period of time."


DeSantis has long hinted at Trump vulnerabilities, as he sees them.

Since the November congressional elections, DeSantis and his allies have pointed out that Republicans failed to win the Senate and won a bare majority in the House because so many Trump-backed candidates lost. DeSantis, meanwhile, won reelection in a normally competitive state by more than 19 percentage points.

DeSantis was echoing previous comments when he advised Morgan to "call me a winner."

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During a discussion of Trump's mocking nicknames, the governor said: “I don’t know how to spell DeSanctimonious. ... I don’t really know what it means, but you know, I kind of like it. It’s long. It’s got a lot of vowels. I mean, we’d go with that."

Trump has said DeSantis would never have become governor in the first place without his endorsement during a Republican primary in 2018.

"It's my fault," he said on Truth Social. "I put him there!"


Susan MacManus, political scientist emerita at the University of South Florida, said Trump, DeSantis and any other candidate who wants to mix it up will run another risk: Turning off voters entirely, persuading them to stay home during primaries and the general election against Democrats.

"What should be worrisome is a dip in turnout," MacManus said. "The public, in my judgement, is very weary of slash-and-burn politics."

MacManus said local voters have voiced another sentiment about the Trump-DeSantis feud: "Why do they both have to be from Florida?"

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: DeSantis, Trump launch rhetorical brawl for Republican 2024 nomination