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The political fortunes of Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis have reversed in the past six months. Following his re-election as governor of Florida, DeSantis looked like a strong potential presidential candidate, while Trump grappled with legal and personal challenges. Now, with Trump leading the polls, DeSantis has struggled to consolidate his star status and, in some corners, there is a growing sense that Trump’s nomination for president is inevitable.

I would caution against that sentiment, no matter what it is for Trump at the moment. After months of reporting on the early stages of the 2024 presidential race, I’ve seen how narratives can miss important factors shaping the race. And so conventional wisdom begins to take shape in a way that is at odds with evidence or data. (See: Expectations for the Republican wave in last year’s midterm elections.)

DeSantis is expected to formally enter the race as soon as tomorrow. Here are two narratives about his candidacy that could use revision.

Narrative 1: DeSantis is toast.

Reality: There is an opening for a Trump alternative, whether it’s DeSantis or someone else.

Trump’s hold on Republican voters has always been tenuous. He never won a majority of voters in a contested Republican primary. At the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting in California this year, a delegate told me that party insiders estimated that about 30 to 35 percent of Republican voters were unmoved with Trump, while another small group considered other options. Was comfortable with him as a candidate. ,

For the other candidates, those numbers lay out a road map to victory: consolidate most Republicans who would prefer a different candidate. This group includes factions such as Tea Party conservatives who supported Texas Senator Ted Cruz in the 2016 primary and business-focused moderates who supported candidates such as Ohio Gov. John Kasich in 2016.

Appealing to them is a difficult task. These groups have historically opposed Trump for different reasons and no candidate has successfully brought them together, but the conditions for an anti-Trump coalition are there.

A path for a candidate like DeSantis or Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, who joined the Republican field yesterday, is to win the nomination without surpassing Trump. As my colleague Nate Cohn wrote, One strategy to defeat Trump may be to embody his political message without taking him on directly. For some Republicans, this is a welcome direction. My reporting made clear that given the criminal investigation Trump faces, some rivals have counted on him to implicate themselves.

However, that strategy is passive, which could play into Trump’s hands. Outside the Manhattan courthouse on the day Trump was arraigned on fraud charges related to his 2016 campaign, conservative media provocateur Jack Posobiec said that people close to Trump’s campaign had predicted that more indictments would bolster his candidacy, calling it Will not put you in danger. He said he believed Trump would have an opportunity to appeal to politically motivated law enforcement and voters to block his candidacy.

Posobiec pointed to the increased news media attention, increased fund-raising, and polling surge that Trump achieved following his impeachment.

Narrative 2: DeSantis’ biggest problem is Donald Trump.

Reality: Yes, but first they have to face another problem.

DeSantis no longer intimidates candidates who were once indifferent to his status as a front-runner in the Trump-alternative sweepstakes. Last week, several Republican governors made notable moves: Doug Burgum of North Dakota – a former Microsoft executive – pointed to joining the 2024 field, and Glenn Youngkin of Virginia released an ad linking himself to Ronald Reagan. . New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu also said he was considering joining the race, days after a report that former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie might also join.

Those actions show a party unintended by DeSantis’ candidacy and further evidence that his campaign’s first task is not to outdo Trump, but to convince primary voters and opponents that he is Trump’s strongest opponent. Are. At the RNC meeting, a Trump adviser told me that his campaign would like to field 10 candidates. “More is better for us,” the adviser said, citing the argument that multiple candidates polling in the single digits would hurt DeSantis’ ability to form a coalition.

DeSantis’ delicate work was on display two months ago, when he announced an isolationist approach on the war in Ukraine, an apparent play on Trump’s supporters. DeSantis’ statement sparked a reaction Commentators and Republican donorsAnd two other presidential contenders — former Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina and former Vice President Mike Pence — used it to attack them.

That’s the danger of DeSantis’ unique electoral position: As soon as he enters the race as the established Trump alternative, he incurs the wrath of other rivals trying to elevate themselves.

When DeSantis announces his candidacy this week, he’ll be an underdog, but he’s not a long shot. Anyone who hasn’t raised more than $110 million.

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