Former President Trump, DeSantis tensions shadow this year’s CPAC

WASHINGTON (The Hill): The simmering tensions between former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) are looming over the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), where both men are set to give highly anticipated speeches later this month.

With Trump eyeing a political comeback and DeSantis seen as a potential contender for the 2024 GOP presidential bod, the high-profile gathering in Orlando, Fla., offers a prime opportunity to take the temperature of the Republican base and pitch their political brands to the conservative activists and leaders who will play a major role in boosting the party’s next presidential nominee.

But the conference also has the potential to highlight – and possibly even deepen – the emerging divide between Trump and DeSantis, stirring both worry and intrigue within the GOP.

“I think he definitely feels threatened by the governor,” one GOP donor, who has given to both Trump and DeSantis, said of the former president. “I can’t necessarily blame him, because there are a lot of people right now who are very interested in what Ron DeSantis has to say, and I think that’s especially true at CPAC.”

Trump has griped behind the scenes for months about DeSantis’s rapid political rise, including chatter about a future White House bid. Fueling the complaints is the Florida governor’s apparent refusal to say publicly that he won’t challenge Trump in 2024 should the former president mount another campaign for the White House.

The donor said that while Trump has clung to the same talking points – most notably his baseless claim that the 2020 election was stolen from him – DeSantis is “talking about Joe Biden, he’s talking about freedom from COVID lockdowns, he’s looking forward and not backward.”

It’s unclear whether Trump and DeSantis will appear together or separately during CPAC — a common stop for conservative leaders and ambitious Republican politicians — and the conference’s organizers haven’t yet released the speaking schedule.

Trump and DeSantis also won’t be the only potential 2024 contenders to appear at the gathering. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is also slated to speak.

To be sure, it’s unlikely that there will be any sort of public blowup between Trump and DeSantis at CPAC.

While the former president has complained privately about the Florida governor, he’s taken only veiled shots at him in public. For instance, in an interview with the conservative One America News Network last month, Trump knocked “gutless” politicians who refuse to say whether they received a COVID-19 booster shot. DeSantis has repeatedly dodged questions about his booster status.

Keith Naughton, a veteran Republican strategist, said that Trump is also constrained in his ability to attack DeSantis, noting the Florida governor’s rising popularity among Republican voters, as well as the fact that he’s up for reelection this year.

“Anyone who has come close to him, he’s knocked them down,” Naughton said. “His problem now though is that DeSantis is really popular among Republicans, and Trump obviously doesn’t want a Democrat being governor of Florida.”

“With Trump, it’s all about Trump all the time and DeSantis is horning in on that,” Naughton added. “So now Trump is constrained on how he can attack him.”

Trump, DeSantis and their allies have worked to tamp down chatter that their relationship has become strained. In a recent interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity, Trump insisted that he has a “very good relationship with Ron.” 

For his part, DeSantis has accused the media of pushing a false narrative around his relationship with Trump, while dismissing speculation about a potential 2024 presidential run as “nonsense.” He has said repeatedly that he’s focused on carrying out his duties as governor and running for reelection this year.

Still, Trump has been keeping a close watch on the Florida governor as he sizes up the potential competition ahead of 2024. One former Trump aide said that DeSantis could also easily dispel any notion of tension with Trump by pledging not to seek the GOP nomination if the former president does. CPAC could be a good opportunity for DeSantis to “kiss the ring,” the aide said.

“Show that he’s still loyal to the president and let everyone know that he has no intention of challenging him,” the aide said. “Donald Trump is still the leader of the party, so take the opportunity to show we’re all united here.”

Trump is still the heavy favorite among Republican voters for the 2024 presidential nomination, with early polling showing him dominating the field of potential contenders. Still, DeSantis routinely polls in second place among would-be GOP presidential hopefuls and gains significant ground when Trump is taken out of the running.

Within Florida, DeSantis appears to be an even more potent force. A Suffolk University/USA TODAY poll of likely voters in the Sunshine State still showed DeSantis trailing Trump in a hypothetical primary matchup, though by a much smaller margin – only about 7 percentage points.

That same survey found DeSantis outperforming Trump in a hypothetical head-to-head race against President Biden. DeSantis led the incumbent president 52 percent to 44 percent, while Trump held a narrower 47 percent to 44 percent lead.

Nevertheless, Trump already has a massive edge over any potential challenger. He has virtually universal name recognition nationwide and a massive war chest to fund his political operation. He announced earlier this week that his affiliated political groups entered 2022 with more than $122 million in the bank.

Yet while Trump may be the 2024 hopeful to beat right now, Naughton, the Republican strategist, said that CPAC attendees will be closely watching DeSantis, arguing that the former president’s political hold on the GOP has already begun to slip.

“The story of CPAC will be that Trump gets a huge reception, everyone will say that they love Trump. He’ll get wild cheers,” Naughton said. “But behind the scenes, people are going to be thinking we need somebody else who can win. They’re going to be checking out DeSantis and sizing him up as a potential replacement.”

“That’s really the story of the past year and going into this next year,” he added.