DeSantis’ Debate Performance Didn’t Impress GOP Donors – Rolling Stone

Desantis debate

Ron DeSantis may be leading the Republicans he shared the debate stage with on Wednesday night, but he had just as much — if not more — at stake than any of them. Once upon a time, the Florida governor had high hopes to dethrone Donald Trump atop the GOP, but his campaign has been floundering amid a series of unforced errors and questions about his ability to connect with voters. The debate was a golden opportunity to generate momentum by, at the very least, asserting himself as the alpha of the group chasing Trump in the polls.

He wasn’t able to do that, or much of anything. They say the opposite of love is not hate but indifference, and sadly for the Florida governor his performance in Milwaukee did not provoke disdain, but shrugs, among his already frustrated mega-donor base.

Asked by Rolling Stone late Wednesday night about how DeSantis did at the debate, one big GOP donor who’s been backing DeSantis against Trump simply replied: “He was there.” Another Republican high-roller donor who has given to both Trump and DeSantis in the past — and is currently waiting to see if the Florida governor recovers or completely implodes in the primary — said early Thursday that DeSantis was “unimpressive but not a disaster.”

Operatives and candidates leading the other, non-Trump 2024 GOP presidential campaigns were similarly unimpressed. Some view the Fox News debate as yet another highly public indicator that DeSantis — who was until recently aggressively promoted by Fox and the Murdoch media empire as the shining, post-Trump future of the conservative movement — was a paper tiger all along, and was always destined to struggle once hitting the national stage for real.

A senior aide for one of the other debate participants says their candidate in recent prep sessions saw little need to go after DeSantis hard because “he’s very close to becoming old news.”

DeSantis was clearly expecting his opponents to be a little more concerned. Campaign manager James Uthmeier recently leaked a debate strategy memo laying out that DeSantis was “fully prepared” to be the “center of attacks.” This may explain why DeSantis wasn’t really going on the offensive himself. He instead stood stiffly at the middle podium, delivering well-rehearsed monologues and tired lines about President Biden staying in his basement, while failing to say anything remotely memorable. He did not have the air of the frontrunner of the group — both to viewers and, apparently, to the other candidates, who didn’t really attack him. Mike Pence, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Chris Christie all wrestled more speaking time than DeSantis, according to The New York Times, probably due to the fact that the governor largely stayed out of the night’s more heated exchanges.

Uthmeier framed the performance as a positive. “While other candidates attacked each other, Gov. DeSantis stayed focused on the American people and fighting for their future with a clear vision to fix our economy, secure the border, empower parents, back law enforcement and stand up to the leftist elite and the D.C. establishment,” he said in a statement Wednesday night.

It wasn’t just his hesitance to mix it up with his competitors, though. DeSantis also seemed torn on how to handle Trump, as he has been throughout his entire campaign. When Bret Baier asked the candidates to raise their hand if they would still support the former president if he were convicted on any of the four indictments he’s currently facing — a basic question any candidate should be well prepared to answer — Ramaswamy, Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, and Doug Burgum raised their hands immediately. DeSantis took a while, though, timidly raising his hand only after looking down the row to see who else was doing it.

He showed a little more assertiveness when he weighed in on whether the U.S. should stop funding Ukraine’s effort to beat back Russian aggression, but then started fumbling as he tried to make a point about China — to the apparent delight of Ramaswamy. “I would have support in China, uhh, to be able to take, uhh, to be able to take China, umm, and do what we need to do with China,” he said after insisting Europe needs to step up and help fund Ukraine’s effort.

The idea that Europe needs to pull its weight and send money to Ukraine has long been Trump’s stance on the issue. DeSantis also lifted one of the former president’s signature phrases when discussing Anthony Fauci. It was one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the night. “You bring Fauci in, you sit him down, and you say, ‘Anthony, you are fired!’” he bellowed.

It isn’t hard to see, then, why some of the GOP’s top money men were lukewarm about his performance. He didn’t take any huge shots, but simply treading water isn’t going to cut it for a campaign that has been steadily sinking for months, and which is now in danger of dipping below that of Ramaswamy, and potentially others.


The Florida governor’s night, and his entire campaign, is probably best summed up in a now-viral clip of him emphatically saying he won’t let the American people down before straining to approximate a human smile.

He couldn’t quite pull it off.

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