DeSantis Fails to Break Out During First GOP Presidential Primary Debate

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By Giselle Balido

August 24, 2023

The Republican incumbent stumbled, dodged questions, and struggled to stand out among the more commanding presences on stage.

After months of trailing former president Donald Trump in the polls and struggling to fend off other candidates nipping at his heels, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had an opportunity during Wednesday’s first Republican presidential primary debate to emerge as the one and only challenger to Trump. 

But that’s not what happened. DeSantis was expected to be the focal point of the debate, but he left the stage in Milwaukee without establishing himself as the man to beat Trump, who declined to participate in the debate and instead conducted his own primetime interview with Tucker Carlson.

DeSantis opened the debate by attempting to dispel his image as a cold, stiff debater, with a show of force. Looking straight at the camera he fell back on one of his regular tirades—“Our country is in decline”—and promised that under a DeSantis administration, people who cross the border into the United States illegally would end up “stone cold dead.” 

DeSantis Backs Trump,

After that initial spurt, the Republican incumbent stumbled, dodged questions, or struggled to stand out among the more commanding presences on stage. It was also notable that DeSantis was rarely singled out for attacks by other candidates, a sign that some Republican strategists view as ominous for his campaign.

“It speaks volumes that just months after being the co-front-runner of this race, Ron DeSantis has fallen so far that none of his seven opponents onstage felt the need to attack him but instead went after a first-time upstart [Vivek Ramaswamy],” Republican strategist Matt Mowers, who attended the debate, told NBC News.

One of the most telling moments came when the candidates were asked to raise their hands if they would support Trump if he were convicted in a court of law and DeSantis–who was in the center-stage spot–looked around to see how everyone else responded before half-heartedly raising his right hand.

Five other candidates–Mike Pence, Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Doug Burgum–joined DeSantis in raising his hand. Only former governor of New Jersey Chris Christie, and Asa Hutchinson, the former governor of Arkansas, declined to raise their hands.

Later, when DeSantis touted his record on crime, claiming that it was at a 50-year low in Florida, Fox’s Brett Baier pointed out that crime was up in Miami. “Well, statewide,” the governor hurriedly corrected. 

RELATED: Republican Candidates Commit to Backing Trump Even if Convicted

Asked if he would support a federal six-week abortion ban, DeSantis deflected the question by going on a non-sequitur about his 2022 electoral victory in Florida. When pressed for an answer, DeSantis sat on the fence and refused to rule it out or support the controversial proposal. 

DeSantis proved more assertive–if not factual–when discussing other topics. He claimed that his administration eliminated critical race theory from grades K through 12 in Florida schools. But educators, school officials, and Florida public school districts have repeatedly made clear that CRT has never been part of the state curriculum.

DeSantis claimed that Florida led the country out of lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic and that he “kept the state free and open,” but he failed to acknowledge the state’s higher rates of death and hospitalizations after he failed to prioritize vaccine uptake and even cast doubt on the effectiveness of the shots. 

The governor also reiterated his prior call for the US military to invade Mexico to combat fentanyl labs and drug cartels, a move that would embroil the country in a war with its southern neighbor.

RELATED: Gov. DeSantis Is ‘Not Ready’ for the White House, Some Republicans Say

Florida Democrats React

Democratic lawmakers across the state had a swift response to DeSantis’ performance and the debate in general.

Former State Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, who is currently running for the Florida Senate, found DeSantis’ performance “frightening.”

Our Governor just ordered murders at the southern border,” he tweeted.

State Rep. Shevrin Jones found that the debate offered no “substantive conversation” and quickly devolved into a desperate scramble to outshine Trump. “The Republicans offer no blueprint for the surging economic hardships facing the American people,” tweeted Jones. 

DeSantis’ Performance Was Not Enough

DeSantis’ efforts earned him some applause from the debate’s conservative audience and an early poll after the debate suggests he performed adequately, with 27% of 504 registered Republican voters saying he was the second-best performer at the debate, behind Ramaswamy.

But that hardly represents the knockout shot DeSantis was looking for–and likely needed–as Trump continues to pull away in the polls and other candidates like Ramaswamy and Scott attempt to overtake the governor for second. 



  • Giselle Balido

    Giselle is Floricua's political correspondent. She writes about the economy, environmental and social justice, and all things Latino. A published author, Giselle was born in Havana and grew up in New Jersey and Miami. She is passionate about equality, books, and cats.



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