DeSantis speaks during a news conference in Miami. Image Credit: AP file

Washington: Ron DeSantis has a golden opportunity to revive his presidential bid at Wednesday night’s Republican debate. But he’ll need to survive what’s expected to be a withering round of attacks.

A strong performance by the Florida governor may help convince voters he’s the GOP’s best alternative to Donald Trump, someone just as committed to the culture wars but without the baggage of multiple indictments. Rivals are seeking to derail any such ideas with plans to pounce on his missteps, betting Trump’s absence from the forum will clear the way for others to get noticed.

That DeSantis finds himself in this position just months after being all but anointed as Trump’s heir apparent “- conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch called him “DeFuture” on the cover of his New York Post tabloid in November “- speaks to just how far he’s fallen. His campaign has been marked by gaffes including strategy leaks and insults of Trump supporters, overspending that generated embarrassing headlines, and waning enthusiasm.

“The stakes are higher for DeSantis than any other candidate,” said Alex Conant, the communications director for Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign. “This is an important moment for him to show his supporters that he is better than his campaign.”

The DeSantis camp is doing its best to tamp down expectations. Allies and advisers say they simply want him to get through the onslaught of criticism they are expecting from rivals looking to gain attention with splashy attacks. If he can avoid a death blow, DeSantis will be well positioned as the obvious alternative to Trump should legal troubles derail his candidacy, they say.

“I don’t think it actually matters as much as you might think,” Ken Cuccinelli, founder of the Never Back Down super political action committee supporting DeSantis, said at an event for Republican candidates in Atlanta over the weekend.

Cuccinelli argued most Americans don’t pay attention to politics until after Labor Day in early September. Yet the folks who make political donations are already tuned in.

One major contributor, hotel tycoon Robert Bigelow, has said he doesn’t plan to give more than the $20 million he’s already chipped in until other donors start to pony up and DeSantis moderates his policy positions. Other donors soured on DeSantis after he flip-flopped his position on the war in Ukraine and signed a law strictly limiting abortion in Florida.

“DeSantis really has to prove to those donors that he is up for the job,” Conant said. “Six months ago, they were all very excited about him, and it has cooled.”

DeSantis hires experienced debate coach

The what-me-worry tone from the campaign belies the rigor with which aides have been preparing behind the scenes since late May. DeSantis hired an experienced debate coach, Brett O’Donnell, who helped prepare President George W. Bush for the debates in 2004. O’Donnell has been traveling regularly to Tallahassee since late spring.

DeSantis has done at least one practice session per week since announcing his candidacy three months ago, according to people familiar with the preparations who asked not to be identified discussing confidential strategy. He’s been aided by a small circle of advisers including Jason Johnson, who helped ready Senator Ted Cruz of Texas for the 2016 debates. They prepared for a scenario in which Trump was on the stage and an option in which he was not.

Commanding lead

Trump said Sunday he would skip the Milwaukee debate and subsequent forums, given his commanding lead in the polls.

The stage will be arranged with the highest-polling candidates in the middle, meaning DeSantis will literally be at the center of the debate.

DeSantis intends to focus on his conservative record in Florida “- where he rejected Covid lockdowns, took control of school curriculum and loosened gun laws “- his ability to take on President Joe Biden, and his proposals for the economy and foreign policy, according to people briefed on the plans.

“The debate is his last best chance to restart and reboot his campaign,” said Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida.

DeSantis isn’t expected to aggressively confront his fellow Republicans, even though the super-PAC supporting him released a memo urging him to do so. Several allies dismissed the memo as deeply unhelpful, and the governor himself said he hadn’t read it.

“We are fully prepared for Governor DeSantis to be the centre of attacks and on the receiving end of false, desperate charges from other candidates and the legacy media,” campaign manager James Uthmeier said in a letter to supporters. “We all know why our competitors have to go down this road: because this is a two-man race for the Republican nomination between Governor DeSantis and Donald Trump.”

A Des Moines Register, NBC News and Mediacom Iowa Poll shows Trump retains a large lead in Iowa, the first early voting state. The poll of 406 likely caucus-goers from August 13-17 showed 42 per cent intending to support Trump, compared with 19 per cent planning to back DeSantis.

The pollster did say the race is not settled, since 52 per centof caucus-goers say they could be persuaded to support a different candidate. Other surveys show candidates like Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina gaining ground in Iowa, where DeSantis has committed significant resources. DeSantis also doesn’t have a solid lock on a No. 2 position in New Hampshire, where his restrictive views on abortion are less likely to appeal to locals.

At the event in Atlanta last week, DeSantis told conservative activists he was eager to debate because it gives him the chance to speak to as many as 15 million Americans expected to tune in.

“I hope that we will be focused on the future of the country, rather than some of the other static that’s out there right now,” he said in a not-so-subtle nod to Trump’s legal troubles and focus on re-litigating the 2020 election.