Milwaukee—Florida Governor Ron DeSantis appears to have lived up to the hype during the first Republican presidential debate of the 2024 election cycle, which did took place without former President Donald Trump.
On the heels of a second campaign reboot, the pressure was on Gov. DeSantis to deliver a strong debate performance or face continued pressure in public opinion polls, pressure that could force him to lose any and all traction his campaign has garnered since his campaign shake-up.
Prior to the debate, Texas Politics spoke to DeSantis co-campaign manager David Polyansky, consultant Ryan Tyson, and political director Sam Cooper, who all emphasized that DeSantis was ready for any and all challenges to him, his record, and message, by any of the other challengers that participated in the debate.
DeSantis delivered, but so did Vivek Ramaswamy.
Ramaswamy blew up the debate when he accused everyone on the stage of being "bought and paid for."
Pence started the political dog pile on Ramaswamy and then Christie. Christie called Ramaswamy a “rookie” prompting Ramasmwamy to remind the former governor that he had hugged it out with former President Barack Obama.
Ramaswamy’s energy overshadowed all the candidates and their responses until former Gov. Nikki Haley obliterated him over his foreign policy positions, especially on his belief that funding for Israel should be limited.
Haley devoured Ramaswamy.
— Javier Manjarres (@JavManjarres) August 24, 2023
While he dodged a couple of questions, DeSantis’s response to protecting the border by saying he would deploy US Special Forces to enter Mexico and kill drug cartels, and sharing his view about reforming education at the federal level, won him big points.
All of the candidates, including Sen. Tim Scott made great points in their responses, but this was the Ramaswamy and DeSantis Show.
DeSantis needed to have a huge debate performance in order to give himself a chance to build momentum, and he did considering the limited responses he had.
It almost seemed like all the candidates avoided going after DeSantis to prevent him from getting more time to rebut their attacks and convey his overall message.
DeSantis received a very loud ovation from the audience when he said that if elected president, he would go after all the "Soros-funded" state attorneys around the country.
— Javier Manjarres (@JavManjarres) August 24, 2023
But was it enough?
Moments after the debate concluded, the candidates and their surrogates filed into the “Spin Room” where the engaged reporters.
“It was fun,” said DeSantis as he gave a thumbs up.
Spinning for DeSantis were pollster Ryan Tyson and campaign manager James Uthmeier, who both spoke to Texas Politics about how they felt their boss did.
It was no surprise that both men believed that DeSantis won the night.
“There was a scrum for third place. This has been a two-man race since the beginning,” said Tyson, who added that he believed that while the rest of the candidates had “a lot of good ideas,” none of them “have been able to deliver” results to this point.
Uthmeier, who recently came aboard when the campaign rebooted in early August, acknowledged the cutbacks and “adjustments” they had made in early primary states, adding that he believed he had the team in place that was “ready for the long haul.”
“We’ve got the team that is ready for the long haul. The team that’s in it to win it,” added Uthmeier.
Like Tyson, Uthmeier reiterated that the primary race was between DeSantis and President Trump as the rest of the field of candidates was merely “scrapping for third place.”
“This is a horse race. It's going to come down to a head-to-head,” Uthmeier continued. “He won the night. He rose above all the candidates.”
President Trump deployed a team of surrogates, including Reps. Matt Gaetz, Carlos Gimenez, and Byron Donalds, who operated alongside his communication director Steven Cheung, and senior aide Jason Miller.
Cheung told us that DeSantis had a weak performance and showed that he was “not leading from the front,” but rather from behind.
Cheung’s remark was in response to the candidate being asked if they would support Trump if he became the Republican presidential nominee.
DeSantis did not raise his hand and waited a few seconds after looking around the stage.
“Ron DeSantis is not leading from the front. He was looking around the stage for other people’s answers,” said Cheung, who said that now they have it on tape that he paused for about 3 seconds before raising his hand.
In addition, Cheung believes that it didn’t matter how the rest of the field did because Trump won the debate.
Cheung also added that 80 million viewers watched Trump’s interview with Tucker Carlson on ‘X.’
Tyson disagreed with Cheung that Trump’s interview was seen by more Republican primary voters, saying that “only 20 percent of primary voters use Twitter,” arguing that more primary voters, especially those over the age of 65 years of age, watch the debate instead.
Rep. Gimenez asserted that Trump was the clear winner and would be the 2024 GOP presidential nominee.
“I don’t think anyone separated themselves. I think three or four separated themselves from the other four,” said Rep. Gimenez. “Tonight, he won the night. He’s the presumptive winner, he’s going to be the nominee.”
The Floridian caught up with Donald Trump, Jr. as he exited the building, where he joked about his father enjoying a large lead in all the public opinion polls.
“He’s up by 60 points, he feels great, wouldn’t you,” said a laughing Trump.
Post-debate polling will be very telling once they begin to cycle in within the next couple of weeks.
The second GOP presidential debate will be held on September 27 at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California.