Donald Trump stepped up his campaign to return to the White House over the weekend as he launched a volley of insults at his main rival for the Republican nomination, who is now slipping in the polls.
Speaking in Waco, Texas, at his first rally of the year, Mr Trump made a series of digs at Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor. Ridiculing “Ron DeSanctimonious”, Mr Trump said: “I’m not a big fan. Florida has been tremendously successful for many years, long before this guy became governor.”
A Morning Consult poll last week showed that 26pc of Republicans would back Mr DeSantis in a hypothetical primary. It is his lowest rating since December 2022.
A Monmouth survey, which gave the Florida governor a 13-point lead three months ago, had him trailing by 14 points last week.
Mr DeSantis, who has not confirmed he is standing, poses the biggest threat to Mr Trump’s hopes of re-election.
His rival’s ratings were “dropping like a stone”, said Mr Trump.
Mr DeSantis has already been ridiculed as “Jeb DeSantis” by critics who are comparing him to Jeb Bush, the Republican “establishment” candidate whose campaign was crushed by the Trump juggernaut in 2016.
Mr Bush has already endorsed Mr DeSantis, who is expected in May to formally announce he is standing.
Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor who has declared her presidential candidacy, was spared Mr Trump’s wrath in Waco.
It was left to two of the former president’s acolytes in Congress, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz, to pile in on Ms Haley, who served as Mr Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations.
“But we cannot go kicking and screaming around the globe, starting new wars behind every Middle Eastern sand dune as Nikki Haley would have us do,” Mr Gaetz said.
“So, Nikki Haley can keep clicking her heels,” he continued. “What we know is that President Donald Trump will bring America’s enemies to heel.”
Mr DeSantis is reportedly “recalibrating” his message to try to prevent his campaign from crumbling under the Trump onslaught. The governor is to visit New Hampshire – one of the key early primary states – next month, to attend a Republican fund-raiser.
Mr Trump’s choice of Waco for his first rally of the year was controversial, after the city recently marked the 30th anniversary of the massacre in which 86 members of a religious cult died in a fire after a stand-off with authorities.
Critics said the choice represented dog-whistle politics, with white supremacists and militias claiming the clash between federal agents and the Branch Davidian sect in 1993 was proof of persecution by the “deep state”.
The rally capitalised on Mr Trump’s reportedly imminent arrest following an investigation by Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney, as supporters cheered and waved “witch hunt” signs, with the former president proclaiming himself the “most innocent man in American history”. The raft of investigations was like “something out of Stalinist Russia”, he added.
A Manhattan grand jury will reconvene today to consider whether money he paid to former pornographic actress Stormy Daniels broke US campaign finance laws.
Christopher Galdieri, a professor of politics at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire, said: “I think the Republican establishment hasn’t figured what to do about Donald Trump.
“They could have voted to convict him in either impeachment trial and barred him from ever running for office again. They could have cut him loose after January 6. There are any number of things they could have done, but didn’t. So he remains a considerable figure in the party.