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DeSantis isn't running for president yet. Trump needs him to start.

The Florida governor hasn't officially started 2024 campaigning yet, leaving Trump without a solid target for his ire.

Former President Donald Trump relishes his reputation as a fighter. In his telling, though, he doesn’t go looking for fights — they come to him. “I’m a counterpuncher,” he told Fox News during the 2016 election. “I’m responding.” It’s less a strategy than an involuntary reflex for Trump at this point in his life, but it’s sure to be the backbone of his 2024 presidential campaign. That’s especially the case in the looming contest against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, seen as the former president’s biggest challenger.

But here’s the thing: DeSantis isn’t punching. He isn’t even running — yet. DeSantis’ reluctance to formally enter the race has left Trump on the back foot. It has meant his “counterpunches” are either missing their marks or falling flat. That may change when DeSantis officially tosses his hat into the ring and can’t avoid confronting Trump. It’s no surprise, then, that Trump seems more eager for DeSantis to start running than DeSantis is himself.

Which isn’t to say DeSantis is avoiding obvious moves ahead of formally declaring his candidacy. He has a new book out. He has traveled to Iowa and will soon head to New Hampshire. He’s holding events for donors and speaking to police groups around the country, check. And even in the face of a social media broadside from Trump that insinuated he once groomed teenage girls, DeSantis has stayed on message.

“I spend my time delivering results for the people of Florida and fighting against Joe Biden — that’s how I spend my time,” DeSantis said in response to Trump’s post last month. “I don’t spend my time trying to smear other Republicans.”

DeSantis’ biding his time is a major problem for Trump on multiple levels. Usually, a presumptive front-runner would be seeking to clear the field of competitors — think Hillary Clinton in 2016. But Trump knows he managed to snag the 2016 GOP nomination in part precisely because of how crowded the field was; at its peak, 17 Republicans were duking it out. Even as the race narrowed once the voting began, Trump racked up wins — and convention delegates — with just pluralities of votes.

This time around, Trump will depend again on his solid base of supporters to win pluralities in many of the early contests while the rest of the pack scrambles for the remaining votes. But so far, he is one of only three candidates to have filed with the Federal Election Commission.

That hasn’t stopped Trump from going after DeSantis — or at least trying. He has called him a “RINO GLOBALIST” on Truth Social. He has tried on several nicknames for the governor, including “Ron Sanctimonious” and “Shutdown Ron,” the latter of which is a reference to the governor’s initial response to Covid in 2020. And he has promised that he would not use the name “Meatball Ron.”

But NBC News reported that when Trump was in Iowa on Monday, he was “met with relative silence from an otherwise raucous crowd when he unleashed his barrage against DeSantis, which included barbs about votes that would have reduced benefits for recipients of Medicare and Social Security.” That might be at least partly getting used to campaigning again, but as former Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele told MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle, “DeSantis hasn’t really given him anything to hit so far.”

Small wonder, then, that Trumpworld is stepping up its efforts to draft DeSantis into the race. On Thursday, a Trump-aligned PAC filed a complaint about DeSantis’ “shadow presidential campaign” with the Florida Commission on Ethics. Make America Great Again Inc. argues that in doing all the proto-campaigning activities, DeSantis may be violating state law, “because they serve his personal political objectives, are in furtherance of his personal financial gain at the expense of Florida taxpayers, and are intended to influence his official decision to resign from office.”

As far as Trump-related legal arguments go, this one manages to be both novel and potentially valid. But it seems unlikely to go anywhere given DeSantis appointed the majority of the board’s members. The Trump campaign and his PAC are preparing an “expansive opposition research file,” Politico reported Wednesday, to prepare ammunition for the coming war.

DeSantis can’t keep his distance from Trump forever. There will come a time when he faces the problem every candidate to run against Trump faces: deciding when (and how?) to go on the attack. So far, he’s not alone in deciding that now isn’t the time to poke even a wounded bear. It must baffle Trump, a being of pure id who hasn’t exhibited evidence that he would be able to resist a marshmallow in return for getting two. But DeSantis seems ready to hold out for as long as possible, much to Trump’s likely frustration and confusion.