Ron DeSantis hurt most by lack of GOP debates. But he wasn’t happy when they were happening.
Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis debate. Image via AP.

Haley DeSantis
The Governor griped about the entire debate calendar. And now it's over.

Republican presidential candidates had five debates this cycle, and apparently that will be all.

On the heels of ABC canceling its planned debate in New Hampshire, CNN did likewise, citing that only “one qualifying candidate” (Ron DeSantis) accepted the invitation to do so.

The decision clearly impacts DeSantis, who is polling in mid-single-digits, more so than Nikki Haley or Donald Trump.

While the Florida Governor proclaimed his interest in debating in New Hampshire, with the hopes of gaining ground with the front-runners, the seeming wrap on Primary debates closes months of televised events that DeSantis often criticized but needed in his apparently quixotic quest to present as an alternative to Trump.

Even before Republican candidates debated this summer, the Governor sought to display himself as a simulated General Election candidate. In the wake of a controversy over Florida educational standards regarding the teaching of slavery, DeSantis tried to bait Vice President Kamala Harris into a debate after her visit to Jacksonville to condemn the state guidelines. He was unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, as early as June, he was not willing to debate California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Fox News. He reversed that decision soon enough, realizing ultimately that in the absence of the Harris debate, Newsom would do as a second option, and they debated in the Fall. He’s justified this debate on the trail, suggesting repeatedly that it’s not certain President Joe Biden ends up as the nominee for the Democratic Party.

The debate with Newsom was arguably the most advantageous showcase of the cycle for DeSantis, who was the non-Trump front-runner in polls but was stuck debating people with even more remote chances at the nomination.

And those debates spawned meta-narratives, such as the ill-fated decision by the Never Back Down super PAC to release ahead of the first debate in August a strategy memo offering DeSantis guidance to attack Chris Christie and Vivek Ramaswamy. Both now-former candidates made hay of the atypical leak, with Ramaswamy calling the Governor a super PAC puppet; ultimately DeSantis didn’t use many of the suggestions in the memo.

The Governor largely blended into the crowd during that first debate, which he denounced as a “food fight” in a friendly postmortem interview.

“If someone came after me, I was ready to go loaded for bear, we were going to respond and put that to bed. But, you know, I was more interested in talking directly to the people at home rather than the bickering that was back and forth,” DeSantis said. “There was a lot that was going on and, you know, my thing is just, like, OK, that’s fine, but let’s focus on the issues that matter.”

Polling seemed to validate that strategy, with DeSantis “winning” post-debate surveys.

But that debate didn’t put the Governor on par with Trump.

A second debate followed in September, and at least one poll said it didn’t change minds; in fact, DeSantis fell from 15% to 12% nationally, per Morning Consult.

DeSantis griped about his opponents’ comportment after that one too.

“Anyone that watched that debate the other night saw, you know, there was one person who acted like a President should act. And if you look at how they were carping and all this stuff, to me, I thought it was very off-putting,” the Governor told reporters in Long Beach.

Additionally, DeSantis predicted that the race would be over “hopefully pretty quickly,” given polling in the “early states” suggesting an imminent “conclusion.”

The conclusion was not imminent.

Before the third debate in Miami, where he would seem to have had home court advantage, he then started complaining that the debates weren’t in the early states “where the action is.”

“We should be doing these Republican debates in New Hampshire and in Iowa, since we’re going to be there anyway,” DeSantis said in Concord, New Hampshire in October, when he qualified for the ballot for next week’s Primary.

He was flat in the Florida face off, eclipsed by sharper lines from some opponents, and reliant on phrases familiar to those who have followed his campaign trail speeches, delivering a performance that made his social media supporters happy.

News was accidentally made ahead of the event, when his campaign promoted it by saying it came on “the heels of a historic endorsement from Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds.” The word choice struck some as ironic, as the release came amid speculation about whether DeSantis was wearing hidden lifts in his shoes to enhance his height, a claim he vigorously denies.

Meanwhile, DeSantis was caught flat-footed after an attack against Haley and him from Ramaswamy.

“Do you want a leader from a different generation who’s going to put the country first, or do you want Dick Cheney in 3-inch heels?”

After the debate, DeSantis again complained about where it was.

“As much as I like Florida and I like Miami and I was happy to host it as the sitting Governor, Florida is not involved in this for many, many months,” DeSantis said in Iowa.

He also objected to the fourth debate being set for Alabama in December, saying he “would have liked to have seen the December one in Iowa.”

He would complain about the “rehashed” questions in that November presidential debate also.

“But I think they rehashed a lot of questions that have already been asked in some of these things and that we’ve all answered multiple times, not only on the debate stage but in interviews,” DeSantis dished.

The Governor sought one-on-one debates with Haley by the end of 2023, though his greatest interest was having it hosted by someone who leaned toward him over his rival in the race: Laura Ingraham, who said he looked “presidential” during a previous debate while saying Haley had “no future” in the GOP.

During a November interview on “The Ingraham Angle,” the 2024 presidential candidate said Haley “probably wouldn’t like what the debate would be about,” pointing to various “establishment-oriented positions” she has taken.

DeSantis ultimately got one debate in Iowa with Haley, in which he made the case that he was the real conservative in the race and likened Haley to Hillary Clinton. The debate didn’t help Haley or DeSantis appreciably, though, as Trump got majority support in Monday’s caucuses.

DeSantis’ camp is now going after Haley for turning down a second one-on-one debate. DeSantis himself, however, took heat during his 2022 re-election bid from Democratic opponent Charlie Crist for only agreeing to one debate. DeSantis rejected an invitation for a second debate at the “Before You Vote” debate series.

And now this cycle, the next debate appears to be one for the General Election. If at all.

A.G. Gancarski

A.G. Gancarski has been the Northeast Florida correspondent for Florida Politics since 2014. He writes for the New York Post and National Review also, with previous work in the American Conservative and Washington Times and a 15+ year run as a columnist in Folio Weekly. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter: @AGGancarski


  • Dont

    January 17, 2024 at 4:37 pm

    Rhonda plans to blame a lack of even more totally pointless GOP candidate debates for their loss? You go girl!

  • Ron Forrest Ron

    January 18, 2024 at 7:28 am

    Ron isn’t happy. Ron wasn’t happy. Can Ron even be happy? All he does is whine. Past, present, future. Whine, whine, whine.

  • waking

    January 18, 2024 at 8:38 am

    Rona loves to parrot Tramp. The election is rigged just like the debates! It’s just all so unfair according to Rona. Tramp would rather debate a Federal Judge in open court apparently. The whole process is just so anti/democratic according to the GOP. Rona should form his own party- the anti-woke party and try to get on the ballot. Heck, he might even get to debate Joe and Tramp on Fox! Oops, he may have spent all his war chest already? There is always 2028!

  • Lex

    January 18, 2024 at 1:13 pm

    The issue isn’t the number of debates. The issue is the number of debates Donald Trump participated in. The other issue is that primary voters are not looking at the situation that General Voters will be looking at. Republicans will be trying to sell a twice-found-guilty Trump to independents when we could be selling Ron Desantis. Also, the race looks better when you are running against Biden than a Trump race will look once it’s Michelle Obama instead of Biden.

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