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WESTERN COLOMBIA, South Carolina (TodayNews) — For Ron DeSantis, this should have been an important opportunity to help restart his stagnant Republican presidential campaign. But again, this moment was overshadowed by Donald Trump.
The former president’s new legal troubles dominated much of the day as DeSantis gave a brief press conference and a highly anticipated interview designed to reassure worried donors and mainstream voters that he was still well positioned to defeat Trump. Once again, DeSantis gave mixed answers when asked about Trump, training his most aggressive criticism of federal law enforcement rather than his arch Republican rival, who could soon face charges in his attempts to cancel the 2020 election.
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“Unfortunately, we look at institutions such as our own FBI and the Department of Justice, and we see the politicization of these institutions. We have seen them used against the Americans,” DeSantis said. A few minutes later, he added a low-key sneer when asked about Trump’s role in the January 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol uprising: “He certainly should have come out more forcefully, but trying to criminalize it is another matter entirely.”
The confusing message comes as DeSantis faces a new pressing need to refocus his White House bid stemming from the most tumultuous weekend of his young campaign. Less than two months into the race, he is already downsizing staff while facing new questions about his aggressive spending, his media strategy, and his apparent willingness to fight any and all opponents except Trump, the only man he must win to qualify for the Republican Party title. Nomination as a presidential candidate in 2024.
“The DeSantis campaign is being recalibrated. It is clear that this is necessary,” said Republican strategist Terry Sullivan, who ran Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign. “But at the end of the day, they’re still in a better position than any other 10 times Donald Trump challenger.”
The DeSantis team has quietly expressed confidence for months that voters will eventually tire of the escalating legal issues and Trump’s personal baggage. But the same baggage, showing up in the US legal system just as the GOP primary is intensifying, leaves precious little oxygen for its rivals to break through. And Trump’s authority among Republican voters seems to be strengthening with each new lawsuit.
However, DeSantis’ team has already raised a staggering $150 million for his presidential ambitions. The vast majority, $130 million, was given to a super-coordinating committee run by allies who cannot legally coordinate with the campaign.
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The DeSantis campaign itself raised more than $20 million in the first six weeks he entered the race, although federal documents released over the weekend showed he and his team spent more than $8 million in expenses that included more than 100 paid employees, a large security and luxury travel.
Over the weekend, DeSantis’ team admitted he was cutting “less than 10” employees to cut costs. On Tuesday, the spokesperson declined to answer specific questions about other spending or future spending plans.
The DeSantis team may have begun to take modest cost-cutting steps elsewhere.
On Monday and Tuesday, the security presence dwindled as DeSantis made multiple stops in South Carolina. It was a notable shift from DeSantis’ previous appearances across the country, which involved an unusually large private security force – in addition to the Florida law enforcement officers who were usually at his side.
Most presidential candidates at this stage of the campaign have small private security services, if any. Trump, the former president, is an exception. According to his filing with the Federal Election Commission, the DeSantis campaign spent at least $76,000 on its own security in the last quarter.
He spent much more on luxury travel.
The DeSantis campaign has already spent more than $686,000 on travel-tagged expenses, most of which appears to be private jet travel. The Florida governor, who has long favored flying privately, has paid $179,000 to companies that charter planes specifically, according to an Associated Press analysis of his latest statement to the FEC. In the same expense category, there is an additional $483,000 for a company called N2024D LLC, a business created in late May and controlled by the founders of the political compliance firm — a reduction that satisfies federal campaign finance disclosure rules but disguises the ultimate recipient of the money.
The Republican presidential candidate is also facing questions about his big paycheck.
According to reports, DeSantis has paid over $1 million in wages, benefits, and payroll taxes to more than 100 employees to date. The spokesman did not answer the question whether the campaign plans to reduce the staff beyond the already announced “less than 10 people”.
Meanwhile, DeSantis is abandoning his longstanding practice of ignoring the mainstream media in his press strategy. On Tuesday afternoon, he sat down with CNN’s Jake Tupper for an official interview, his first non-conservative media interview since joining the 2024 contest.
In an interview, DeSantis brushed off questions about the direction of his campaign and polls that suggest Trump is way ahead.
“The reality is that it’s a state-by-state process,” DeSantis said. “We are focused on building the organization. You have to get people to come out in mid-January in Iowa for a caucus for you.”
Indeed, as part of its reboot, the campaign is particularly focused on Iowa.
Some on DeSantis’ team privately believe that he should win the first contest of the 2024 presidential primary on January 15 to stand a chance of preventing Trump from becoming the party’s nominee in a third straight election.
To that end, DeSantis supporter Never Back Down super PAC is spending more than $1 million on a new ad campaign that began Tuesday in Iowa that uses Trump’s computer-generated voice to criticize the state’s popular Republican governor. While Trump recently criticized Gov. Kim Reynolds on social media, the DeSantis super PAC used artificial intelligence to create a fake Trump voice.
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Trump campaign senior adviser Chris Lacivita called the ad “a desperate attempt…to fool the American public because they know the DeSanctimonious campaign is on life support.”
“After they lost major donors and downsized their staff, they have now outsourced their work to AI just like they would like to outsource American jobs to China,” he said.
While some backers are concerned about the direction of DeSantis’ campaign, many others still support him as the strongest Republican alternative to Trump.
Bob Grand, a longtime influential Republican Party official in Indiana who recently organized a fundraiser for DeSantis, said it’s too early.
“Everyone should remember that he started not so long ago. We haven’t even had our first debate yet,” said Grand, managing partner at law firm Barnes and Thornburg. “He has a former president who really mocks him. I think that’s a good indicator that he’s a strong contender.”