Authored by Jake Bevan via RealClear Wire,
You may have noticed that Ron DeSantis is a military man now.
Not that it was ever a secret, exactly. DeSantis, who deployed to Iraq as a judge advocate general (“JAG”) officer in 2007, introduced himself to voters as “Ron DeSantis, Iraq War Veteran” in his 2018 contest for Florida governor, and has made passing references to his decision to enlist at early campaign events this year. But personal wrinkles like military service have thus far taken a backseat to the governor’s better-known forays into the culture wars.
The original DeSantis game plan was a presidential campaign that would make its pitch on his conservative credentials and the results he obtained in Tallahassee, more than retail politicking, which is not considered his strength.
But it’s the rare winning presidential campaign that unfolds precisely according to plan from start to finish. And while attempts to rebrand a candidate mid-campaign often turn out no better than the “New Coke” fiasco, sometimes they succeed. Ronald Reagan fired campaign manager John Sears on the eve of the New Hampshire primary and brought back three familiar California hands willing to let “Reagan be Reagan.” Donald Trump’s campaign underwent reboots in both 2016 and 2020, with mixed results.
As part of his campaign reset, DeSantis could be found at multiple events this week specifically catered to military servicemen. Iowans heard him recount war stories from the Coronado Naval base at a veterans’ fundraiser outside Des Moines. He was flanked by WWII-era Jeeps as he unveiled a host of military-related policies to an audience in South Carolina. He punctuated his cable and radio with quick interviews highlighting his status as the only veteran currently in the race for the White House.
“I’m relying on my experience of being in an organization where, at that time, it was ‘mission first,’” DeSantis said Thursday on the nationally syndicated Hugh Hewitt Show.
Standard operating procedure on the DeSantis campaign this week was for surrogates to introduce the candidate as someone who “was attached to” or “supported the SEAL team in Fallujah,” which is how he was described at Saturday’s fundraiser in the Des Moines suburb of Ankeny, Iowa. It’s well-engineered language that is strictly true, even if it might imply something more romantic than the legal work typical of a JAG’s advisory role.
In any case, it’s more than anyone else in the crowded Republican field can say. An added emphasis on DeSantis’ military service was one of several plans outlined in an internal memo to his campaign donors, leaked last week to NBC News.
Dated July 6, the document was an attempt to calm the nerves of squeamish investors expecting an ascent, not a decline, in the GOP primary polls still dominated by Trump. DeSantis holds 20.4% of the Republican vote in the current RCP national average. Months ago, he was hovering around 30%. The frontrunner, meanwhile, has expanded his lead and now sits at 53.1%.
“We are grateful for the investment so many Americans have made to get this country back on track.” stated an early paragraph of the memo. “The fight to save it will be long and challenging, but we have built an operation to share the governor’s message and mobilize the millions of people who support it. We are ready to win.”
Below was a bold-faced header assuring readers that “THE BALLOT IS VERY FLUID” and a number of explanations as to why the campaign is sticking to that story. It promised aggressive new messaging, a more disciplined media effort, and hinted tantalizingly at exploitable weaknesses in the competition. Central to it all, though, was a recalibration around the Florida governor’s story.
“We’ve found that when voters hear about the Governor’s bio – principally as a Dad and as a veteran – they like him and are open to hearing more about him,” the document said. “A major paid media effort featuring the Governor’s bio (dad/family/veteran) will help us to convert image to ballot.”
The DeSantis team is betting big on this strategy in Iowa, promising a “saturation” of the airwaves and a host of upcoming, retail-centric events featuring “cookout styled, backyard activities.” It’s a goal that’s called “critical” in the memo, and for good reason: Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucus offers DeSantis the earliest opportunity to prove that a third Trump nomination is less than inevitable.
On July 14, the day after the memo was made public, DeSantis was campaigning in Iowa, preparing for a date with Tucker Carlson at the Family Leadership Summit in Des Moines. At least one prophecy in the memo had already come to pass.
Hardly a week after his team reminded donors that “Trump is always the most efficient driver of his own negatives,” as if on cue, the former president launched an unprovoked attack on Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican well-liked among her fellow conservatives.
“I opened up the Governor position for Kim Reynolds, & when she fell behind, I ENDORSED her, did big Rallies, & she won,” Trump wrote on his Truth Social account. “Now, she wants to remain ‘NEUTRAL.’ I don’t invite her to events! DeSanctus down 45 points!”
This gratuitous salvo of friendly fire quickly rippled through local GOP circles. It prompted one Iowa State senator, Jeff Reichman, to publicly flip his endorsement from Trump to DeSantis.
RCP spoke with Reichman at the Family Leadership Summit, where he sounded nonplussed by Trump’s remarks.
“In all these other cases where former President Trump goes after people, it’s usually for good reason,” Reichman said. “And sometimes you might shake your head a little bit. But in this case, we know Governor Reynolds. There’s no excuse for it.”
By chance, Reichman was already on his way to Des Moines for a meeting with Reynolds when he was forwarded an email with Trump’s post. He was able to speak with her about it the following morning.
“She said, ‘You do what you need to do,’” Reichman recalled. And, though the Governor handled the post with character, Reichman noted that “of course, it was directly at her, so it was troubling to her.”
Reichman predicted a “bounce” for DeSantis in the near future – something more or less echoed by all fans of the governor who spoke to RCP that weekend.
Rick Peterson, a 72-year-old retired financial auditor from Ankeny, put it bluntly. A Republican who already had cold feet about supporting Trump, he told RCP that Kim Reynolds is “definitely” more popular than the former President in his home state.
“Trump’s Truth post, I’d say, was a major, unforced error,” Peterson said. “It’ll hurt him here.”
While seeking to assure donors that DeSantis is the only “viable” alternative to Trump, the memo takes a pointed jab at Tim Scott, whose devout faith and feel-good messaging has reportedly caught the attention of establishment donors looking for a better way to undercut Trump among evangelical Christians.
“While Tim Scott has earned a serious look at this stage, his bio is lacking the fight that our electorate is looking for in the next president,” the memo reads. “We expect Tim Scott to receive appropriate scrutiny in the weeks ahead.”
Leaving aside whatever innuendo was implied, Scott’s foreign policy came under withering scrutiny from Tucker Carlson at the Iowa family summit.
One attendee, a retiree from Mount Pleasant who identified herself to RCP as Janet, attended the summit to scout for candidates skeptical of the Biden administration’s decision to arm Ukraine with advanced weaponry, including combat tanks and cluster bombs. As predicted, Janet was unsatisfied with Scott’s answers to Carlson.
“Tim Scott’s a good man,” she conceded. “The cluster bomb question, I was disappointed in that. He should have really denounced that.”
DeSantis has long been the de facto favorite of the Never Trump crowd. But, as is evident in the polls, victory in Iowa is nigh impossible if he can’t convert significant numbers of Hawkeye State Republicans who are currently planning to stick with Trump.
That’s proving tricky. The third promise made in the donor memo concerns so-called “soft Trump voters.” The DeSantis game plan is apparently to pitch them from the right.
“Soft Trump voters and America First conservatives do not look kindly on Trump’s record on guns, the deficit and spending, Transgenderism, and his family’s cozy relationship with the Saudi Royal Family,” the memo explains.
DeSantis wasted no time executing this strategy. When he finally took the stage at the Des Moines Family Leadership Summit, Tucker Carlson had barely finished asking his first question – about the prospect of a six-week federal abortion ban – before DeSantis tried to position himself as the more authentic conservative.
“It’s been written about how I’ve lost a lot of really big supporters,” he told the crowd. “Some of them just aren’t pro-life. Some of them think it’s a political liability. And at the end of the day, you get into office to be able to do what’s right. You’ve got to stand on principle.”
He never quite committed himself to that six-week ban, but several in the audience took note of what he did do. One was David Reinke, a retired surgeon from Rock Valley and a Trump fan with a distaste for “conventional” Republicans. Among the MAGA crowd, this word has typically been code for “Ron DeSantis.” But following his time with Carlson?
“[DeSantis] started out that way, but he’s learning he can’t be,” Reinke said. “Getting that answer out there right away was smart.”
In another break from convention, Reinke was one of a few in the audience to actually compliment the stage presence of a candidate who has been routinely described as awkward in person. “It’s a lot better watching him in person than on a TV,” he said.
Is the stage set in Iowa for a soft Trump revolt? It’s tough to say, but Reinke isn’t necessarily the guy to ask. “Once a Trumper, always a Trumper,” he quipped.