- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 19, 2022

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Republicans are already jockeying for support ahead of the 2024 presidential election and some of the biggest names will face off this week at the annual gathering of party conservatives, the Conservative Political Action Conference or CPAC.

The Orlando event will feature the two top 2024 undeclared contenders, former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Both plan to address the convention and will appear on the CPAC straw poll ballot, which attendees use to rank conservatives’ picks for the next presidential election.

The poll results will provide an early indication as to whether Mr. Trump’s influence on Republicans is waning, as some polls suggest, and if Mr. DeSantis’ popularity is growing.

“If Trump decides to run, it’s going to be really hard to take him down,” a GOP strategist who worked on the Trump 2020 campaign told The Washington Times. “But you’re already starting to see him slip in terms of his support among Republicans. In a year, there could be an opening for somebody like DeSantis to succeed.”

Mr. DeSantis, 43, has been increasingly viewed as Mr. Trump’s heir apparent. 

While Mr. Trump won the CPAC straw poll last year by a wide margin, Mr. DeSantis placed second and won overwhelmingly in a separate poll that excluded Mr. Trump from the ballot. 

Mr. DeSantis has kept his presidential ambitions quiet while he runs well ahead of the Democratic field in his bid this year for a second term.

In the meantime, Mr. Trump, 75, is hardly putting aside his presidential ambitions. He suggested multiple times he’s mulling a run for president in 2024.

On the golf course last month, Mr. Trump appeared in a video referring to himself as “the 45th and the 47th” president and indicated he would be eager to launch a second bid to defeat President Biden, who Mr. Trump says won the office unfairly.

Some fresh polling suggests a significant number of Republicans and independents would rather see a new candidate challenge Democrats in 2024.

An Echelon Insights poll in January found 54% of Republicans considered Mr. Trump a great president who “should remain the leader of the Republican Party.” Another 22% agreed Mr. Trump was great “but it’s time for the Republican Party to find a new leader.” Among Republicans, 30% said they would choose a different GOP candidate than Mr. Trump if the Republican primary were held today.

Among Republicans polled, 32% said Mr. DeSantis should run for president if Mr. Trump decides not to make a bid for the White House. But another 23% said Mr. DeSantis should run regardless of a Trump candidacy.

“There are people that are not in the ‘Never Trump’ camp, but disagree with everything he’s done since election day,” the GOP strategist said. “They’re not vocal about it, but they don’t want to support Trump again. They want to support somebody else.”

In Florida, a longtime swing state that now increasingly leans GOP, Mr. Trump came out ahead of Mr. DeSantis 47% to 40% in a Suffolk University poll this month of Sunshine State voters.

Trump won the state in both the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections. 

But in Suffolk’s hypothetical 2024 general election lineup, Mr. DeSantis outperformed Mr. Trump, particularly among critical independent voters. 

Mr. DeSantis beat Mr. Biden among Florida voters overall by a margin of 52% to 44%, while Mr. Trump polled ahead of Mr. Biden by 47% to 44%.

Among independents, Mr. Trump was statistically tied with Mr. Biden, leading 43% to 41%. 

Mr. DeSantis had a double-digit lead among independents, beating Mr. Biden 55% to 39%. 

“You want to win as big as you can among independents,” Suffolk University Political Research Center Director David Paleologos said in an interview. “And in Florida, Trump just barely was beating Biden among Florida independents, and DeSantis was winning big.”

Mr. Trump, who resides in Palm Beach, has characterized reports of a rift with Mr. DeSantis over a potential 2024 clash as “totally fake news,” and said the two remain good friends. Still, media reports surfaced claiming Mr. Trump is angry Mr. DeSantis won’t rule out challenging him for the GOP nomination.

It was Mr. Trump’s endorsement in Florida’s 2018 GOP primary that helped propel Mr. DeSantis past Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and to the governor’s mansion.

As governor, Mr. DeSantis has become a popular figure in the state and nationally among Republicans for battling COVID-19 mandates and lockdowns and for promoting treatments for the virus, which have been lacking. 

Mr. DeSantis told reporters last fall he’s running for governor, not president.

“All the speculation about me is purely manufactured,” Mr. DeSantis said at a news conference touting the state’s monoclonal antibody treatment sites. “I hear all this stuff and, honestly, it’s nonsense.”

• Susan Ferrechio can be reached at sferrechio@washingtontimes.com.

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