A day earlier, campaigning in New Hampshire, DeSantis told reporters that Trump had changed since 2016.
“It’s sad to see,” he declared.
Trailing Trump by huge margins in the GOP presidential primary and running out of time to close the gap, DeSantis has taken an increasingly aggressive approach to his top rival. For months, wary of alienating Trump’s loyal base, DeSantis criticized the former president only when asked and took subtler swings in his stump speeches. But his comments over the past week underscore a shift in posture this fall, with DeSantis routinely knocking Trump by name and sometimes broaching his character.
DeSantis has always pitched himself to voters as a more effective, disciplined version of Trump — an heir to his agenda who is more likely to follow through, less toxic to swing voters and undistracted by personal drama. Now he’s making that case more forcefully and seizing new opportunities to hit Trump as they arise, blasting the former president’s comments of the day on issues ranging from the Israel-Gaza war to six-week abortion bans.
It’s not clear the blunter approach will make a difference for DeSantis, who has fallen far behind Trump since launching his campaign in a more competitive standing and is now fighting for a distant second place with rivals. Polling and focus groups have repeatedly found that most attacks don’t work on Trump and can even backfire as voters who like the former president react defensively.
One Iowa woman who came to hear DeSantis in Creston, Iowa on Saturday held up her hand when a reporter tried to ask about DeSantis’s criticisms of Trump.
“I’m gonna say it in here if I get the opportunity,” Kristine Willets, a retiree long torn between Trump and DeSantis, said before heading into Mario’s Sports Bar & Grill with her grandson. “Stop doing that. We don’t care about that.”
Willets came out of the event agreeing with some of DeSantis’s objections: “Trump should have fired [FBI director Chris] Wray,” she said. She raved about DeSantis, declared him “ready” to be president and praised his answer to her question about the war in Ukraine (“We need to end the conflict.”)
But Willets remained enthusiastic about Trump and, like so many GOP voters, suggested his missteps didn’t bother her.
“Think of the chaos that was going on in his term,” Willets said. “No one ever had to put up with this stuff Trump put up with.”
DeSantis’s presidential hopes likely rest on people like Willets: Trump voters in Iowa — where DeSantis has focused his resources — who are open to other options in 2024. So far, most Trump supporters have proved difficult to win over.
DeSantis and his allies have sought to criticize Trump as both hard to elect in the general and insufficiently conservative on key issues in the primary — noting that he once allowed transgender women to compete in his Miss Universe pageant or that he didn’t get rid of Anthony S. Fauci, who helped lead the U.S. coronavirus response under Trump and inspires hatred from many Republicans.
Republican candidates and groups aiming to defeat Trump have tried many lines of attack and DeSantis is no exception. Asked recently on the campaign trail why someone should vote for him over Trump — in a moment promoted on social media by a pro-DeSantis super PAC — the governor ticked swiftly through a list of arguments over five minutes, saying that he has a stronger record of fulfilling policy promises; can serve longer in office; and is more capable of staffing an effective administration.
Trump’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment on Monday.
DeSantis’s support among voters favorable to Trump has steadily dropped from a high point early this year, before he officially joined the presidential race. Many of those Republicans have gravitated back toward Trump as he racks up criminal indictments — and DeSantis himself has echoed Trump’s unsubstantiated claims that the prosecutions are politically motivated, mostly declining to criticize the former president on that front.
Trump and his team have shown no hesitation in attacking DeSantis, often in personal terms. “Ron DeSanctimonious has the Poll numbers of a wounded bird falling from the sky,” Trump wrote recently on his social media site, Truth Social, calling DeSantis a “terrible and inept candidate.”
Asked why DeSantis has sharpened his criticisms lately, campaign spokesman Andrew Romeo — who recently called Trump’s comments on Israel “disturbing and disqualifying” — said DeSantis “has simply been pointing out how the former president isn’t the same guy as he used to be” and responding to off-script blunders.
To many political observers, however, DeSantis’s harsher criticism seems like another strategy shift for a candidate who has repeatedly retooled.
At first, DeSantis avoided criticizing Trump to the point that even veiled jabs made news. In March, when Trump was indicted in New York, DeSantis made headlines for his pointed allusion to the sordid allegations against Trump — “hush money to a porn star” — even as he joined broad GOP condemnations of the case.
DeSantis began to take sharper hits after officially launching his campaign.
But they were less frequent and DeSantis advisers said their priority was introducing DeSantis positively rather than aggressively contrasting with Trump. And DeSantis didn’t criticize Trump by name in his stump speeches, which usually decried a “culture of losing” in the GOP.
That shifted after the second GOP debate, where several candidates took direct aim at Trump in his absence. DeSantis’s latest comments on the former president have been particularly blunt.
“We have the Donald Trump on the teleprompter, where he’s reading what’s on there,” DeSantis told reporters in New Hampshire last week. “Then you have Donald Trump when he gets off that teleprompter, and that’s the real Donald Trump.” He accused Trump of making the conflict in Israel “about him” with his criticisms of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Trump’s team has defended his comments on Israel, saying that calling Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed militant group and longtime enemy of Israel, “smart” does not equate to calling them “good.”
A late September memo from a group opposing Trump in the GOP primary — which is linked to the conservative Club for Growth — concluded that even video of Trump “saying liberal or stupid comments from his own mouth” did not hurt his support.
“He hired the wrong people and he didn’t fire the right people,” said one voter in New Hampshire, Kevin McMahon, when asked recently about DeSantis’s case against the former president. But Trump remains McMahon’s top choice in 2024.
“He won’t make that mistake twice,” McMahon said. “He’ll fix the country.”