ABC News

If former President Donald Trump is the Republican nominee in the 2024 election, the race will be overshadowed by the legal issues and other controversies he’s facing, creating a potent advantage for Democrats, rival Ron Desantis argued on Sunday.

“He’s focused a lot on things that concern him,” the Florida governor and 2024 primary candidate told ABC News “This Week” co-anchor Jonathan Karl just one day before voting starts with the Iowa caucuses.

“Obviously, the distractions of everything that’s going along with all these legal issues has been a huge thing for him [Trump],” DeSantis said. “You’re gonna have criminal trials, you’re gonna have a lot of focus on things like Jan. 6 by the media, and I think that ends up focusing the election on things that are going to be advantageous for Democrats.”

“The notion that somehow all this stuff that’s swirling around him is going to be a positive in a general election, that’s just not true,” DeSantis said, warning of how the contest could be turned into “a referendum on Donald Trump.” (Trump denies all wrongdoing.)

“Whereas if I’m the nominee … I think it will be a crisp opportunity for a crisp victory for Republicans,” DeSantis said.

With the Iowa caucuses one day away — officially starting the 2024 Republican primary race on Monday in brutally cold winter weather — DeSantis is making his closing argument for why conservative voters should turn to him over Trump, who has remained the clear front-runner in state and national polling.

“I’ve delivered on 100% of my promises. Donald Trump, obviously, didn’t build the wall, didn’t drain the swamp and didn’t reduce the debt,” DeSantis told Karl. “I’ve also taken on and beaten the Democrats and the left. And in reality, Donald Trump, as president, oftentimes got beat by the Democrats.”

Still, many potential Iowa voters don’t seem swayed and Trump has dismissed DeSantis’ attacks, refusing even to debate with him.

A new Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom Iowa poll released on Saturday showed the former president winning 48% support from likely Republican caucusgoers.

Meanwhile, DeSantis, who has put enormous resources into winning the state, building a robust ground game there, slipped down to third place — narrowly behind former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.

DeSantis has repeatedly boasted over the past few months that he would win the Iowa caucuses but has changed his tune recently as voting approaches, now saying that the nominating contest is about winning the most delegates across every state and that he’s in the race for the “long haul.”

Pressed by Karl on “This Week” if he still promises to win Iowa, DeSantis said instead that “it’s good to be an underdog” and that his supporters in Iowa are ready to turn out for him.

“I’d rather have people lower expectations for us,” he said. “I tend to perform better like that.”

He also took a jab at Haley, who has risen in recent months to compete with him for second place behind Trump. Haley is “not getting support from conservatives,” DeSantis said. “She’s relying on Democrat-leaning independents for her support in the primary.”

Karl cited new ABC News/Ipsos polling that shows 68% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents feel Trump has the best chance to win in November. “Why are they wrong?” he asked.

DeSantis said GOP voters “understandably” see Biden as a “very feeble” candidate who would lose to anyone — but he argued past elections like in 2022 show Trump’s influence was rejected by many voters despite Biden’s poor popularity.

DeSantis also said he thinks current polling showing Trump beating out Biden in a hypothetical race, nearly a year away from the election, is “somewhat of a mirage.”

However, he would not say directly if he believes Trump would lose against Biden in another matchup

“My fear is doing 2024 with a rematch would have a lot of the same dynamics that we had in 2020,” he said.

And when Karl sought a direct answer from DeSantis on Trump’s moral character, the governor pivoted to his primary race pitch.

“For me, leadership is not about yourself, it’s not about showmanship or any of that,” he said. “It’s about producing results. So, when you make promises, do you deliver? And if you break the promises, then that’s not good leadership.”

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