Donald Trump may be in legal trouble over his alleged weakness for vice, but his predicament is increasingly placing Ron DeSantis – his chief rival for the Republican presidential nomination – in a political vise.
The Florida governor must join Republican attacks on Alvin Bragg, the Democratic Manhattan district attorney whose indictment of Trump over a hush money payment to a porn star is reportedly imminent, while trying not to lose ground in a primary he has not formally entered.
DeSantis has floated criticism of Trump over the hush money payment – and indeed did so again on Tuesday in an interview with Fox Nation that prompted Trump to say he was “not working for the people of Florida as he should be”.
The same day, however, a new poll showed how Trump, who is also fundraising off his legal peril, has tightened his grip on the primary race.
The Morning Consult survey shows the former president has 54% support among likely primary voters and DeSantis has 26%, tying his lowest score since the poll began in December.
The two men are still way ahead of the rest of the field. Trump’s former vice-president, Mike Pence, was third in the Morning Consult poll, with 7%, three points ahead of Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor.
Liz Cheney, the former Wyoming representative who lost her seat after turning against Trump over the January 6 attack on Congress, and who has not ruled out a run, had 3% support. No one else, including likely candidates Mike Pompeo and Tim Scott, got more than a point.
Like DeSantis, Pence has not declared a run but is seen to be positioning himself to do so. In a telling detail, Morning Consult noted that Pence’s favorability rating “declined from 60% to 55% during a week that featured news coverage of his condemnation of Trump’s behavior surrounding the January 6 attack”.
Speaking to reporters in Florida on Monday, DeSantis was asked to comment on Trump’s looming indictment in the Stormy Daniels affair.
Using a common rightwing attack line with antisemitic overtones, he condemned Bragg as a puppet of the progressive philanthropist George Soros.
But DeSantis also took a shot at Trump, saying: “I don’t know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair. I just – I can’t speak to that.”
Trump responded with typical aggression, recycling an attack line questioning DeSantis’s behaviour around young women when he was a teacher but also insinuating the governor might be gay.
The following day, a close Trump ally warned of worse to come.
“If you start this thing,” the South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham told Fox News, “you better be willing to take it. I don’t like it. You know, Trump is not into ‘Thou shall nots’. That’s not his thing.”
DeSantis did not seem to listen, repeating his hush money jab to the British journalist Piers Morgan in an interview for Fox Nation excerpted in the New York Post.
“There’s a lot of speculation about what [Trump’s] underlying conduct is,” DeSantis said. “[The payoff] is purported to be it and the reality is that’s just outside my wheelhouse. I mean that’s just not something that I can speak to.”
Morgan wrote: “The message was clear: I’m nothing like Trump when it comes to sleazy behaviour.”
DeSantis also expanded on criticisms of Trump – if without mentioning the former president by name. The Florida governor said he would have handled Covid “different”, including firing the senior adviser Anthony Fauci, and claimed he governed without “daily drama”.
He also said Trump’s attacks were mere “background noise” and mocked the former president’s nicknames for him, saying: “I don’t know how to spell the [De]sanctimonious one. I don’t really know what it means, but I kinda like it, it’s long, it’s got a lot of vowels … you can call me whatever you want, just as long as you also call me a winner.”
For leaders, DeSantis said, Americans “really want to look to people like our founding fathers, like what type of character … are you bringing?”
Trump had switched from flattery to attacking him, DeSantis said, because “the major thing that’s happened that’s changed his tune was my re-election victory”.
DeSantis beat the Democrat Charlie Crist by a landslide in November.
On Wednesday, Trump inevitably replied, writing on his Truth Social platform: “Ron DeSanctimonious 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, desperately trying to rescue his failing campaign – But it’s my fault, I put him there!”
Amid it all, the Morning Consult poll contained another worrying message for Republicans in general.
According to the poll, if Trump were the nominee he would lose a head-to-head with Joe Biden by three points, 44% to 41%. If the Republican nominee were DeSantis, he would lose by one point less.