Former President Trump and his team have in recent weeks settled with an approach that has for now staved off the threat of a challenger displacing him atop Republican primary polls.
The strategy has been a mixture of pointed attacks on rivals, namely Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), over past policy positions, as well as Trump’s usual fire-and-brimstone approach in lashing out against critics and investigations into his conduct.
The result so far has been a strong fundraising haul that was boosted in the aftermath of Trump’s indictment in New York City, as well as a slew of congressional endorsements that have served to solidify the former president’s standing atop the Republican Party.
“In general, I think the party is better with somebody new and fresh and Trump comes with a lot of baggage but he does seem to be more disciplined this time,” said Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor who is backing DeSantis.
The former president has released a series of video messages on social media outlining his campaign platform on issues like immigration, Ukraine and dismantling the “deep state.” While the videos often feature exaggerated claims or proposals that would not pass muster with Congress, they reflect the campaign’s desire to push the former president’s ideas directly out into the public.
Trump, who has typically been known for making personal attacks and labeling opponents with derisive nicknames, has surprised some with a barrage of policy-based attacks against DeSantis in particular, seeking to thwart the Florida governor’s momentum before he officially enters the race.
In speeches and through campaign ads, the former president has targeted DeSantis over his past votes and comments about reforming Social Security and Medicare, as well as his past votes on ethanol standards, which are both issues that could hurt the governor with voters in Iowa.
In a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference, Trump also told attendees it was time to “change our thinking” on issues like mail-in voting, an acknowledgment of the importance of banking votes ahead of Election Day and a stark reversal from the former president’s insistence in 2020 that mail ballots were rife with fraud.
“The Trump campaign is on a roll particularly with messaging. Not only are they sucking all of the oxygen out of the GOP base, but they are directing the conversation, and the DeSantis folks are in catch-up mode,” said Ford O’Connell, a Florida based Republican strategist.
Trump has not abandoned the kind of over-the-top rhetoric that both enthralls his supporters and scares off independents, however.
The former president delivered a speech after his indictment in New York City earlier this month littered with grievances about the myriad investigations he’s facing and attacking the Manhattan judge overseeing his case, as well as the judge’s family.
On Truth Social, Trump still periodically digs in on his unfounded belief that the 2020 election was rigged against him and lashes out at former officials who appear on television. Most recently, Trump has attacked former Attorney General William Barr and former chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.
And in a move more in line with Trump’s typical brash style, a Trump-aligned super PAC released an ad mocking DeSantis over a Daily Beast report that he once ate pudding with his fingers during a flight.
One former Trump campaign official pointed to national poll numbers that show Trump with a healthy lead over his potential rivals to argue the former president still has a strong grip on the party’s electorate.
A FiveThirtyEight average of national GOP primary polls shows Trump receiving 49 percent of the vote, with DeSantis a distant second at 26 percent.
But the official pointed to Trump’s indictment and the other looming investigations as the types of issues that could continue to give some voters pause as they wonder whether the former president is the best candidate for Republicans to win back the White House.
Trump’s latest strategy comes as his battle with DeSantis intensifies. The super PAC backing DeSantis, known as Never Back Down, released its first television ad on Sunday titled “What Happened to Donald Trump?” Additionally, the group rolled out an online spot hitting Trump over gun rights as announced and potential 2024 contenders addressed the National Rifle Association convention last week.
In a statement to The Hill, the group’s communications director Erin Perrine likened Trump’s airing of grievances to “Festivus.”
“Governor DeSantis isn’t even an announced candidate, and Donald Trump is absolutely obsessed with attacking America’s most successful Republican governor,” Perrine said. “Governor DeSantis continues to rack up wins for the people of Florida while Donald Trump airs grievances about his losing record like it’s Festivus.”
Trump’s Republican critics push back on the notion that his strategy has changed in any way since 2020, arguing that his 2024 campaign is still a compilation of his greatest hits.
“It doesn’t really feel like they’ve settled on a particular strategy right now,” said Brian Seitchik, an Arizona-based GOP strategist and Trump campaign alum. “While some may argue Trump is more disciplined today, I have little doubt he’s going to revert back to ‘16 Donald Trump.”
Seitchik noted that Trump’s use of “targeted, personal attacks” has been a successful part of his playbook, particularly in crowded Republican primaries.
“That’s how he beat 16, 17 career politicians in 2016, so I think that’s where we’re eventually headed,” he said.
DeSantis was on Capitol Hill Tuesday for an event with lawmakers, an indication that his support could be growing in Congress. So far, only a small handful of Republicans in Congress have formally thrown their support behind the Florida governor, but several were expected to attend the event with DeSantis on Tuesday, including Utah Sen. Mike Lee (R).
While polls show Trump as the clear frontrunner in the national primary, DeSantis’s allies point to state level polls showing him leading Biden in a hypothetical general election matchup. A poll from the GOP firm Public Opinion Strategies released on Monday found the governor leading the president by 3 points in Pennsylvania and by 6 points in Arizona. Trump, meanwhile, loses to Biden by 4 points in Pennsylvania and by 1 point in Arizona.
But Trump’s supporters argue that the former president’s congressional endorsements are a sign of his grip on the party. On Monday and Tuesday, Trump picked up several more endorsements from GOP members of the House and Senate. He currently has more than three dozen congressional endorsements.
Eberhart said that DeSantis cannot continue to let Trump define him as he inches closer to a 2024 announcement.
“To me, DeSantis is making the same mistakes Mitt Romney made in 2012, which is allowing his opponent to define him,” he said. “We haven’t seen, what does a DeSantis punch look like?”