(NEW YORK) — Ahead of the first Republican primary debate in Milwaukee, in two weeks, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is ramping up his prep and bracing for a potential onslaught of attacks from his rivals when he steps on stage, sources familiar with his strategy told ABC News.
As DeSantis gears up for the Aug. 23 debate — which will offer him the chance to make a renewed pitch to a national audience amid stagnant early poll numbers against Donald Trump — the Florida governor has enlisted the help of seasoned debate coach Brett O’Donnell and has been holding regular Q&A sessions at least once a week, the sources said.
But questions remain about whether former President Trump, who remains the GOP primary front-runner, will attend the first debate and how his decision will impact the other candidates as they attempt to erode Trump’s persistent lead in the polls.
Trump has repeatedly teased that he will skip the first debate, pointing to his commanding lead so far.
“Why would I want to debate as opposed to doing something else that night? Why would I want to debate when you have people at zero and 1% asking me hostile questions?” Trump previously said.
His potential absence from the debate would likely place an even larger target on DeSantis, who is No. 2 in many polls — a scenario the governor’s team has been strategizing for, the sources said.
DeSantis’ campaign is actively preparing him to withstand “nonstop” attacks from his fellow candidates, according to the sources.
But if Trump ultimately skips the debate, sources told ABC News that the DeSantis campaign believes the move could hurt the former president with primary voters who want to see him on the stage. DeSantis’ campaign has been conducting polling on the issue with Republican voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.
Despite the uncertainty around Trump’s participation, DeSantis and his campaign are working to capitalize on either scenario, sources said. If Trump does attend, the sources said to expect DeSantis to leverage the face-to-face opportunity to highlight differences between himself and Trump.
On the trail, DeSantis has pointed to how he handled COVID-19 — and eschewing many of the related public health restrictions — compared with Trump, who in the early months of the pandemic often echoed medical experts on the value of temporary shutdowns.
“Regardless of whether or not Donald Trump is afraid to debate, Ron DeSantis is looking forward to being on stage in Milwaukee talking about his plans to beat Joe Biden, reverse the decline in our nation, and revive America’s future,” DeSantis’ campaign communications director, Andrew Romeo, said in a statement to ABC News.
In an exclusive interview with ABC News in late July, DeSantis underscored that he has been preparing for the possibility that Trump will show up at the debate.
“We prepare for both eventualities,” DeSantis said then. “He says he’s not going to go, maybe he shows up.”
“I think he should show up. I think everyone should show up. You owe it to make the case to the people about why you should be president. And at the end of the day, nobody’s entitled to a nomination,” he added.
DeSantis for months avoided directly criticizing Trump with the same intensity that Trump has attacked him, but DeSantis has recently argued on the trail that Trump’s mounting legal woes — including three indictments, each of which he denies — could weaken Republicans in the 2024 election.
“If the election becomes a referendum on trivial matters like what document was found near the toilet at [Trump’s club] Mar-a-Lago, victory is unlikely for us,” DeSantis said during an interview with ABC News Senior Congressional Correspondent Rachel Scott at one of his campaign events in Iowa.
“Our attention should be directed towards the people’s aspirations for their future,” he said then. “In 2024, we must avoid distractions to succeed.”
DeSantis’ campaign has been undergoing multiple changes this summer, ABC News previously reported: He recently swapped out his campaign manager and cut several dozen staffers as part of a pivot on spending, with his team evaluating that they had burned through cash too quickly and hired too many people.
The governor also has begun embracing a new approach to the media, including sitting for multiple interviews with non-Fox News, mainstream news outlets.
Behind closed doors, senior aides have had discussions with donors addressing concerns about his White House bid so far.
He said in July that “this is going to be a state-by-state contest.”
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