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Reporters found Ron DeSantis’ debate strategy. It’s very, very bad.

DeSantis is being advised to shield Trump and take aim at unserious candidates.

Reporters have uncovered a memo detailing the likely debate strategy of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis ahead of the upcoming Republican presidential debate Wednesday. As The New York Times first reported, the memo was part of hundreds of pages of research posted by a firm associated with the super PAC Never Back Down, which has “effectively taken over” DeSantis’ campaign. The advice is shockingly bad. It’s foolish because it recommends that DeSantis shield former President Donald Trump and hurl goofy insults at candidates who aren’t real threats.

The fact that these memos were found in the first place is embarrassing for DeSantis. While super PACs are prohibited from coordinating directly with campaigns, PACs often try to get around those restrictions by posting polling data, strategy memos and other documents publicly. In general they place these documents in some obscure place online so they can’t be found by the opposition or the media. But in this instance, somebody tipped off reporters to their location. Now we’ve got a rare window into how a presidential candidate’s political operation is strategizing about a debate just days away.

The memo advises DeSantis to treat Trump in the gentlest, most flattering terms.

The most striking detail of the memo, written by leaders of Never Back Down, is that it proposes that DeSantis protect Trump (who is not expected to even show up to the debate) from attacks from other candidates, especially former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has pledged to slam Trump.

“Defend Trump when Chris Christie attacks him,” the memo reads. It suggests this line for pushing back against him: “Trump isn’t here so let’s just leave him alone. He’s too weak to defend himself here. We’re all running against him. I don’t think we want to join forces with someone on this stage who’s auditioning for a show on MSNBC.”

The memo advises DeSantis to treat Trump in the gentlest, most flattering way. It advises that he praise Trump’s first term as “a breath of fresh air," and that he should say Trump was “the first president to tell the elite where to shove it.” As for why voters should nevertheless choose DeSantis, it frames Trump’s candidacy as weak because he’s a victim of indictments, beset by “so many distractions that it’s almost impossible for him to focus on moving the country forward.” 

Attacking Trump is, admittedly, a complicated task. The Republican base is still enthralled with him, and any viable Republican presidential candidate needs to pay significant heed to the MAGA worldview. But it’s a remarkable self-surrender to protect the front-runner from attacks from other candidates and refuse to criticize him in substantive terms. Once considered Trump’s most formidable foe, DeSantis has sunk in the polls and endures nonstop financial and campaign difficulties. It’s hard to see what he has to lose by trying a strategy of full confrontation. One can’t help but speculate that this strategy deliberately plays it safe, hoping that Trump declines in the polls in the midst of his legal troubles. But given Trump’s record of almost total immunity to controversy among Republicans, that would be a reckless strategy. 

The memo, strangely, also suggests that DeSantis’ main Republican target should be former biotech executive Vivek Ramaswamy. “Take a sledgehammer to Vivek Ramaswamy: ‘Fake Vivek’ Or ‘Vivek the Fake,’” the memo recommends. Setting aside for a moment how weak those monikers are, this strategy could simply backfire. Ramaswamy is doing surprisingly well in the polls, even nipping at DeSantis’ heels in some surveys. But he likely still lacks the name recognition and experience to become a serious contender in the longer-term. Ironically, DeSantis jousting with Ramaswamy would only make the latter seem like a more established, credible candidate than he currently is.

The memo is also deeply cynical. Part of the reason it advises DeSantis to attack Ramaswamy is that it sees him as a convenient target for the kind of drama that could later generate headlines. As the Times notes, the pro-DeSantis advisers see attacking Ramaswamy as a possible “orchestra pit moment,” a reference to the late Fox News executive Roger Ailes’ theory that a candidate falling off the debate stage will generate more media coverage than one demonstrating policy chops. According to the Times, the memo omits policy completely. Worse, the memo also proposes that DeSantis call attention to Ramaswamy’s Hindu faith and Indian ancestry; notably, Ramaswamy is the only candidate who will be on the debate stage whose ethno-religious background is mentioned. 

Doesn’t this all sound rather familiar?

Now it’s possible that DeSantis switches playbooks, especially now that this one has leaked. But given that Never Back Down has tremendous influence over DeSantis’ campaign, and is paying for much of the research and strategy work that a campaign normally handles itself, it’s fair to assume that this debate memo approximates the mainstream thinking in DeSantis World. And broadly speaking it tracks with DeSantis’ campaign strategy: Decline to hit Trump hard; mimick his style of using combative and controversial behavior to generate headlines. Sadly we know from Trump’s ability to dominate the news cycle that some of this can work. But we also know that DeSantis hasn't been able to replicate Trump's mastery of the strategy. And DeSantis' seemingly unshakable fear of Trump is a reminder that his campaign appears to lack any real killer instinct.