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The 2024 Republican presidential primaries are not yet in full swing and we are already in the food fight phase.
A superteam backing former President Donald Trump tried to vilify the Florida governor. Ron DeSantis with pudding, seizing on a report, denied by the governor, of his eating habits to highlight the importance of welfare and medical care.
The ad itself is big. And it brought in a DeSantis-supporting supercomputer from the outside to air its own ad, in which he wondered why Trump was going after the Florida governor.
For the record, neither DeSantis nor Trump currently say they will touch social benefits, but both have suggested in the past that they might.
I spoke via email with CNN’s chief national affairs correspondent Jeff Zeleny about the Trump-DeSantis dynamic, the role of big-pocketed supercommanders, and what else is going on in this nascent primary campaign.
WOLF: There are nine months left before the first primaries, and not all the leading candidates have even put forward their candidacies. But there is also a slander against the super PAC. What is happening and what should we learn from all this?
GREEN: A new season of attack ads has begun, and allies of Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis have fired some of the first direct shots at the fledgling presidential campaign. Now is the time to identify your opponent—whether you are the announced candidate (Trump) or soon to be (DeSantis)—and start pointing out potential vulnerabilities. Unsurprisingly, the opening salvo was about Social Security and Medicare, and highlighting old comments about the promise to reform social programs.
WOLF: Technically Super PAC cannot coordinate with campaigns. Technically, DeSantis doesn’t have a campaign. How it works?
GREEN: The Florida governor does not plan to enter the presidential race until May or June – after the end of the legislative session – so until then he is protected by a group of wealthy allies. The “Never Back Down” super-PKK is actually a wait-and-see campaign involving sociologists and political strategists of all stripes. Federal election law forbids coordination with a campaign, but when there is no official campaign, this formality becomes much easier.
WOLF: Do other Republican candidates have deep-pocketed supercomputers? Who else to look at?
GREEN: Not that deep, no, but most mainstream Republican candidates have at least some sort of super PAC help. Former governor of South Carolina. Nikki Haley has some support and is looking for it, as are other potential candidates. One likely presidential candidate, Senator Tim Scott, has one financial advantage that sets him apart from the competition: he has more than $20 million left in his campaign account from last year’s Senate race to use in his presidential race. This is a handicap that most of his rivals can only dream of.
WOLF: Trump and DeSantis have been shadowboxing against each other for some time now. Can we assume that this is a prelude to a much more brutal battle? What does this say about the unity of the Republican Party heading into the primaries?
Green: Republican unity? It will come later – or so senior Republican officials hope – but the season of battles to determine your opponent is in full swing. The feud between Trump and DeSantis has been smoldering for a long time, but their spring exchange almost certainly looks bizarre compared to what could happen.
WOLF: What do we know about where these Super PAC ads are shown? Are they targeting certain types of voters or is it just an attempt to get media attention for us?
GREEN: At the moment, most of the advertising is shown on cable TV and in sports. The Make America Great Again group, which supports Trump, has been running ads for weeks seeking to portray DeSantis in a negative light. You’ve probably seen some of them that start with ominous words: “Think you know Ron DeSantis? Think again.”
WOLF: Are there any changes to how you think the Super Packs will work this year and how they will participate in the campaign?
GREEN: With each electoral cycle that has passed, supercoordinators have played an increasingly prominent role. Raising money is easier – with no federal restrictions placed on candidates. If the months at the start of the year are any indication, the 2024 campaign will push the boundaries even further as outside groups will matter much more than political parties or, in some cases, even the candidates themselves.
WOLF: Are there any preliminary findings we can draw about how Trump’s indictment by the Manhattan District Attorney on criminal charges affected his campaign? Did that affect his popularity with Republican voters? Influenced his fundraising?
GREEN: Early conclusions are often risky, but Trump’s campaign insists the accusation was a fundraising spur. It certainly rallied many Republicans around him – or at least united them against the indictment – but it may be too early to tell if this will last. He faces potential criminal prosecution in Georgia for his role in trying to overturn the election results, as well as at least two federal investigations.