By Tim Reid and Nathan Layne
(Reuters) – Amid the headline-grabbing insults and name-calling, Donald Trump is pursuing a surprisingly policy-heavy strategy to damage his closest Republican rival Ron DeSantis before he enters the presidential race, according to a Reuters analysis of the former president’s statements since he announced his White House bid.
Forty percent of Trump’s attacks on the Florida governor have targeted issues such as Social Security, the government-run Medicare health program for older Americans, foreign policy and DeSantis’ record in office.
Five political analysts who reviewed Reuters’ findings said the strategy marks a sharp contrast with Trump’s first run for president in 2016, when he won the Republican nomination with chaotic tactics based largely on personal insults leveled at his opponents.
“This time it’s clear that Trump is changing the way he does this by hitting harder on the policy stuff,” said David Gergen, a non-partisan analyst who has advised one Democratic and three Republican presidents.
Since Trump announced his White House run on Nov. 15, he has launched at least 242 attacks against declared and potential rivals for the party’s nomination, according to a Reuters analysis of his statements on his Truth Social platform, his emails, major speeches, media interviews and campaign press releases.
The vast majority of those attacks – 216 – have been aimed at DeSantis, who has yet to declare his candidacy but is expected to announce by June, according to a source familiar with his thinking.
A main focus of Trump’s attacks has been Social Security – the federal pension system – and Medicare. Trump has repeatedly accused DeSantis of wanting to “destroy” those benefits and has criticized the Florida governor 43 times on those issues since November, with the attacks intensifying since March, according to the analysis.
At a rally in the early primary state of New Hampshire on April 27, Trump – using one of a handful of his nicknames for the governor – said: “Unlike Ron DeSanctus … I will always protect Social Security and Medicare for our great seniors.”
Even though DeSantis and congressional Republican leaders have said the programs should be off the table in debt limit talks between Republicans and the White House, the Trump campaign has seized on votes DeSantis made when he was a congressman between 2013 and 2018.
DeSantis voted several times during that period for gradually raising the age to collect Social Security to 70 from 65 and changing Medicare into a system where seniors would get help to buy their own insurance.
Cuts to entitlement spending was Republican orthodoxy at the time. Today, party leaders and many Republican voters oppose reforming Social Security and Medicare because so many Americans rely on the programs.
In an interview on the conservative Newsmax cable network on May 8, DeSantis noted that Trump himself supported raising the Social Security eligibility age to 70 in a book released in 2000. In the interview, DeSantis stressed that no-one had proposed changes that would impact “current senior citizens.”
Jason Miller, a senior adviser on Trump’s campaign, said the policy-heavy strategy was intended to draw a distinction between the former president and DeSantis on entitlement spending and other policies, while tying the governor to so-called establishment Republicans despised by the Trump base, a coalition of unwavering supporters built in large part on white working-class voters.
“It shows how he would govern in Washington,” Miller said. “Ron DeSantis’ record in Washington is out of step with the Republican Party today and the general election voters who will decide our next president.”
DeSantis has so far largely failed to push back against Trump’s verbal onslaught. That inaction may be contributing to the former president’s big early lead in opinion polls in the Republican race, two of the political analysts said.
John Feehery, a Republican strategist, said Trump’s approach could yield political dividends among a Republican primary electorate that has a large number of older voters who rely heavily on both programs. In the 2020 presidential election, 56% of Republican and Republican-leaning voters were aged over 50, up from 39% in 1996, according to the non-partisan Pew Research Center.
“A lot of these folks are not as wealthy as the Republicans of old. They are reliant on Social Security and Medicare and they worry about this stuff,” Feehery said. “From a political perspective, this is pretty smart from Trump.”
When asked for comment on Trump’s sniping, aides to DeSantis declined to push back against the former president directly. In a statement, DeSantis spokesperson Dave Abrams said “false Democrat attacks” would not stop the governor from “continuing to deliver unprecedented successes for the conservative movement.”
Aides to DeSantis say they expect the governor to gain momentum and narrow the polling gap with Trump once he enters the race.
There is so far no clear polling on how Trump’s attacks on entitlement spending have impacted DeSantis. Generally, Trump has soared into a commanding lead since mid-March, when most surveys showed him a few points ahead of DeSantis. Recent polls show Trump between 25 to 35 points ahead of DeSantis among likely Republican voters.
Jennifer R. Mercieca, an expert on political language who has written a book on Trump’s rhetoric, said the former president needed to differentiate himself from DeSantis, who has sought to portray himself as a “junior Trump” without the chaos.
“Trump is saying: ‘No, there is a difference, it’s not just about me using mean Tweets’,” Mercieca said. “It’s a strategy to say there is this contrast between us on policy, and on policy that really appeals to Trump’s base.”
Trump has not left behind his old campaign style, which turned name-calling and insults about his opponents’ appearance or character into a vicious art form that his followers gleefully cheered.
In 2016 Trump famously marginalized Ted Cruz, a Republican senator from Texas, by nicknaming him “Lyin’ Ted”. He saw off early frontrunner Jeb Bush by labeling him “low energy” and helped end Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s run by nicknaming him “Little Marco.”
The other 60 percent of his broadsides against DeSantis are disparaging or personally abusive, the Reuters analysis showed, portraying the Yale and Harvard-educated Florida governor as an elite stuffed shirt. Trump declared on May 5 for example that DeSantis needs a “personality transplant”, and he frequently uses the nickname “Ron DeSanctimonious.”
Of the 85 policy-related attacks, some three dozen have sought to portray DeSantis as a follower of former Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, labeled him a “globalist” or suggested he was fond of overseas wars, according to the analysis.
Trump also accuses the Florida governor of being a foreign policy neophyte and criticized DeSantis for having to walk back a comment that the Ukraine war was a “territorial dispute.”
Another 14 attacked DeSantis on his response to COVID-19, even though he was re-elected governor in a landslide in 2022 partly because he was viewed by many voters as having handled the pandemic well.
Some attacks touched on all the targets at once.
“Ron DeSanctimonious thought he could run for President despite his less than average numbers on COVID, Crime, and Education. Florida was successful long before DeSanctis got there,” Trump wrote in March on his social media platform.
The former president has spent little energy going after his party’s other White House hopefuls. He has launched gentle barbs against Nikki Haley, a declared candidate and his former U.N. ambassador, a dozen times, and Mike Pence, his former vice president who is expected to announce a run in June, just twice.
He has also gone after three other potential rivals a handful of times, including New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu, and Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor.
Despite Trump’s mounting legal problems, defeating him will likely require the candidates to punch back, analysts say.
“At some point you have to engage with him directly,” said Mike DuHaime, a Republican strategist. “He’s too strong. If you just leave him be you won’t be able to beat him.”
(Reporting by Tim Reid in Los Angeles and Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut; Editing by Ross Colvin and Daniel Flynn)
Copyright 2023 Thomson Reuters.