The battle for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination has for months been seen as a two-man race: a fight between Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a rising national star long viewed as the only candidate capable of defeating the former Republican president.
Yet missteps by DeSantis on foreign policy and a doubling down by Trump on politically violent rhetoric in recent days – the type of grievance politics that has alienated some previously loyal Trump supporters – has underscored the volatility of a race still in its earliest stages, party strategists and donors say.
While both Trump and DeSantis, who has not yet declared, remain top contenders for the nomination, both are displaying vulnerabilities that could mean a long and bitter dogfight between both men, but also provide opportunities to other Republican hopefuls.
DeSantis' muddled messaging on Ukraine and the multiple legal investigations into Trump mean that this year’s primary race “is a vast sea of uncertainty,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican strategist, and former DeSantis pollster. “The nomination fight is wide open.”
Recent Republican primary races serve as a reminder of how unpredictable the race could be: Trump, a former reality TV star, was initially dismissed as a longshot candidate before his shock rise to capture the 2016 nomination; Senator John McCain won the nomination in 2008 months after his campaign ran out of money and he was counted out by pollsters.
DeSantis, fresh off a landslide re-election victory as Florida’s governor in November, has cultivated a national profile as a conservative culture warrior who upset liberals by forbidding classroom instruction in Florida about sexual orientation and gender identity.
With polls and interviews showing many Republicans looking for an alternative to Trump, DeSantis’s message in a recent national book tour has been that he can deliver on conservative priorities but without the legal woes, palace intrigue, and track record of defeats linked to Trump.
Last week, however, DeSantis was forced to backtrack after calling Russia’s invasion of Ukraine just a “territorial dispute.” It was an attempt to appeal to the “America First”, isolationist Republican base but backfired badly, drawing condemnation from many inside his own party.
Trump has also recently stepped up his attacks on DeSantis, who has largely declined to fight back, and has also called for widespread protests and warned of "death and destruction" if he is charged by Manhattan prosecutors investigating an alleged hush money payment to a porn star in 2016.
DeSantis's Ukraine comments and Trump’s stepped-up attacks on his former protege have unnerved some Republicans, including deep-pocketed donors, who would rather see DeSantis as the nominee because they view Trump as too damaged to win a 2024 general election.
Two longtime and wealthy Republican donors told Reuters that DeSantis’s comments betrayed a lack of national experience and made them concerned that he is not ready for the prime-time exposure of a presidential campaign.
Metals magnate and donor Andy Sabin backed Trump in 2016 and 2020 but is now planning to spend money in the Republican primary on “anybody but Trump."
Sabin gave $55,000 to DeSantis’ re-election campaign last year but told Reuters the Ukraine comments shook him. “I’m not happy about it. I want to see how it plays out. It’s certainly going to affect me a lot.”
Sarah Longwell, a Republican strategist and longtime critic of Trump, has conducted regular focus groups with Republican voters.
"How good is Ron DeSantis? I think we have just seen nobody is quite sure," Longwell said.
A source close to DeSantis, who asked to remain unidentified because of the sensitive nature of the topic, said the Florida governor would be “staying the course” in his ramp-up toward a presidential bid. Trump's attacks are viewed by the DeSantis camp as an attempt to knock him out of the race before it begins in earnest, the source said.
Trump's media frenzy
In recent days, Trump has strengthened his position in some national primary polls as he has again dominated the news cycle by publicizing what he says is his imminent arrest. He has used the huge media exposure to try to rile up his base.
But Trump’s current advantages of near-universal name recognition, media attention, and a core base of supporters could quickly dissipate, said Stu Rothenberg, a non-partisan political analyst.
Political analysts said Trump's attacks on DeSantis could also hurt him. Enthusiastic crowds of Trump supporters were mostly quiet when he mocked DeSantis at two recent rallies.
The vulnerabilities of the two leading contenders for the nomination could provide openings for other Republican hopefuls, political analysts said.
Trump's former UN ambassador Nikki Haley, the only other big-name candidate officially in the running, and Trump's former vice president, Mike Pence, have criticized DeSantis for his Ukraine comments.
For now, despite the volatility, Trump and DeSantis remain the two leading contenders, said David Tamasi, a Republican donor and lobbyist.
"You have two candidates getting 75-80% of the vote," said Tamasi, who previously backed Trump but is not this time. "It's ups and downs. Ping pong."