The long-simmering feud between former President Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is reaching new heights as the nascent Republican presidential primary breaks into open warfare between its top contenders.
The tensions between the two men were on prominent display in recent days as they took jabs at each other at dueling campaign events more than 1,000 miles apart. After DeSantis swiped at Trump by claiming that it would take eight years in the White House to “get this job done,” the former president responded bluntly: “Who the hell wants to wait eight years?”
“When he says eight years, every time I hear it I wince because I say, if it takes eight years to turn this around, then you don’t want him. You don’t want him as your president,” Trump said at a stop in Urbandale, Iowa.
Asked about Trump’s remarks later in the day, DeSantis didn’t hold back.
“Why didn’t he do it his first four years?” he quipped.
The exchange was just a taste of how bitter the rivalry between the one-time political allies has become in the opening days of DeSantis’s presidential campaign.
While the Florida governor is still running well behind Trump in most public polling, the former president has made clear for months that he’s ready for a fight, going on the attack against DeSantis even before he formally entered the race.
DeSantis, meanwhile, made clear last week that he won’t take the incoming fire sitting down, telling reporters after a campaign kickoff event that if he comes under attack, he’s “going to counterpunch.”
“I am gonna fight back on it,” DeSantis said. “I am going to focus my fire on Biden, and I think he should do the same. He gives Biden a free pass.”
So far, none of the GOP presidential contenders have taken any heat from Trump or DeSantis, who is still polling well ahead of the rest of the field. Speaking on a Des Moines-area radio show, Trump made clear why he is directing his fire squarely at DeSantis.
“This is a war of a certain kind, and what you do is, generally speaking — the person that’s in second place, you go after that person as opposed to the person in eighth or ninth place,” Trump told radio host Simon Conway.
The conflict between Trump and DeSantis has gone beyond off-handed jabs from the candidates. As Trump campaigned in Urbandale last week, Never Back Down, a pro-DeSantis super PAC, parked a “Team DeSantis” bus outside of the former president’s event.
At the same time, allies and staffers for the two candidates have engaged in increasingly bitter back-and-forths online.
In one exchange, Trump campaign spokesperson Steven Cheung posted a photo of the Never Back Down bus, claiming that it “broke down” on the side of the road. That drew a response from DeSantis’s rapid response director, who posted a photo of Cheung standing outside of the bus “wishing he could hitch a ride.”
Republicans said that the feuding between Trump and DeSantis was inevitable; the former president has a history of running scorched-earth campaigns, while DeSantis has pinned his political ambitions on his reputation for standing up to any and all criticism.
What caught some in the party off guard, however, is just how fast the fight escalated.
“Obviously Trump was never going to cut DeSantis any slack, but I kind of expected him to wait a while to start hitting back at him,” said one Republican strategist, who’s supporting DeSantis’s presidential bid. “It was going to happen sooner or later, but I think the DeSantis folks came to the conclusion that the longer he waited, the harder it would be.”
Others welcomed the battle, arguing that it was time for the GOP and its various factions to begin hashing out their differences, especially after a relatively lackluster midterm election cycle that saw many Republicans lose their races in an otherwise favorable political environment.
“I will say this: I don’t think it’s ever bad for a political party to have a good, robust primary fight,” said Dallas Woodhouse, a longtime Republican operative who currently heads up the conservative South Carolina Policy Council. “I think Republicans need that right now.”
But the feud could also carry consequences for the two candidates — and the GOP’s efforts to reclaim the White House in 2024 — raising the risk of either man emerging from the primary bruised and battered.
“Obviously, getting into the ring with Trump was a risk to begin with,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist. “I think that if this does get too bloody, you may wind up ruining the chances of both.”