Opinion

Is DeSantis likeable enough to be elected president?

The sharpest opinions on the debate from around the web

During last week's Florida gubernatorial debate, Democratic nominee Charlie Crist challenged incumbent Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis to commit to serving his full term if he wins re-election next month. DeSantis, widely expected to run for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, sidestepped the question, refusing to respond to Crist's prodding. "He's running for president. I think we all know that," Crist told Fox News after the debate. "He wouldn't admit it … but that's what's happening." 

DeSantis has grabbed national headlines time after time with provocative actions that have angered Democrats but thrilled the GOP's MAGA base. He flew a group of Venezuelan asylum seekers from Texas to Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, to protest President Biden's immigration policies. The right applauded; the left accused him of tricking vulnerable people and using them as political pawns. He scolded students for wearing masks to one of his press conferences, prompting Democrats to call him a "bully." Even some aides quietly say DeSantis' likeability is a problem. Will DeSantis' aggressive tactics help him win the White House, or will his personality hold him back?

Being a jerk and boring isn't a winning formula

DeSantis might easily win re-election in his "increasingly red state," says Jennifer Rubin in The Washington Post, but his debate performance didn't bode well for his presidential ambitions. His tired lies about late-term abortions and gender-affirming surgery for young children that don't actually happen was the kind of "hackery" that "might fly at a Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) rally," but only showed how out of touch he is with the "facts and public opinion that exists outside the MAGA universe." This is not a guy who can "project a positive, widely appealing national message."

His biggest problem is that even GOP donors seem to find him arrogant, awkward, and boring. Some former staffers think he's a bully, Vanity Fair has reported. "None of this is fatal to presidential ambitions. Lots of politicians are jerks. But missing charisma, a winning personality, and verbal acuity might make a presidential campaign tough going for DeSantis." 

DeSantis' aggressive nature has mixed results

"DeSantis critics see his pugilism as bordering on bullying," says Linda Feldmann in The Christian Science Monitor. And he has "faced repercussions" for it, like when the Justice Department said it was doing a legal review of his migrant flights. But "the pushback may be a plus" with Republican primary voters, who see him as "a fighter." When critics called him a bully for scolding mask-wearing high school students, he doubled down with a tweet "referring scornfully to 'COVID theater.'"

Conservative activists say DeSantis "can come across as uncomfortable and aloof" in close settings, but his wife, Casey DeSantis, is a former Jacksonville TV host, and she's "helping him improve his public presentation skills" and "soften his image." In her "That Is Who Ron DeSantis Is" campaign ad, for example, she speaks "emotionally about how he helped her get through a breast cancer diagnosis." With their three young children, their family dynamic appeals to many voters. "But a sympathetic spouse can only do so much." DeSantis has to find a way to keep projecting his "own the libs" vibe to appeal to the base while working on likeability to win over fence-sitters.

DeSantis' problem is Trump, not his personality

"DeSantis is clearly a very popular Republican and clever politician who has made a name for himself on a number of issues that are a high priority for conservatives," says Philip Klein at National Review. After DeSantis waltzes to re-election in November, it won't be long before the speculation about a possible matchup between him and Donald Trump in 2024 "goes into overdrive." If DeSantis falls short despite his sharp political skills, it won't be because he's not huggable. It will be because "Trump has too large a base of loyal followers to be beaten in a Republican primary."

A recent poll flagged by Axios found that "DeSantis narrowly leads Trump among Republican college graduates 36 percent to 33 percent, but gets clobbered among those who do not have a college degree, with 55 percent supporting Trump and just 23 percent supporting DeSantis." DeSantis trails Trump 40-36 among suburban voters, but the former president leaves him in the dust among rural voters, leading 53-24. He might become "a favorite of white-collar Republicans" only to have "rural voters say, 'not so fast'" — the way Elizabeth Warren won over "well-educated progressives" but "didn't really connect beyond that."

Maybe Trump is the one who should be worried

DeSantis is on a roll, says Andrew Buncombe in The Independent. If a Trump-DeSantis primary battle comes, the Florida governor will have "youth on his side." He also has "not been twice impeached, has not been subpoenaed by the committee investigating the Jan 6 attacks, is not the focus of a probe by financial investigators in New York, and has not had his home raided by the FBI, which transported boxes of apparently classified documents." Nor will he enter the primaries as "the most divisive and controversial ex-president of history."

And DeSantis' performance in his debate against Crist showed he can handle the spotlight. Crist got in some good jabs. "Yet each time, the Republican punched back — defending his record on responding to Hurricane Ian, on reopening the Florida economy sooner than many other states during the pandemic, and blaming Joe Biden and the Democrats for the state of the economy nationally." To top it off, DeSantis has an approval rating of 53 percent, "more than Trump ever had when he was president." 

DeSantis' biggest enemies are Trump, and himself

Americans can distinguish between a bully and a fighter, says the Tampa Bay Times in an editorial. DeSantis has "wasted Floridians' tax dollars to send immigrants from Texas to Martha's Vineyard and his new Office of Election Crimes and Security arrested felons for voter fraud even though they had good reason to believe they were allowed to vote." He treated the coronavirus pandemic as "an 'us vs. them' showdown, 'them' being anyone who dared advocate for mask wearing or social distancing." Meanwhile, more than 82,000 Floridians died from COVID.

DeSantis is a politician who "divides to conquer." Even the still-unchallenged leader of the right's Make America Great Again movement, Donald Trump, had trouble winning nationwide that way, losing his re-election bid to President Biden. And Ron DeSantis is "Donald Trump but devoid of the charm."

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