To seize the spotlight at the first Republican presidential debate next week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis must defend former president Donald Trump, “pivot” to attacking President Biden and the media at least three times, and show emotion when telling an anecdote about his family, according to documents posted online by a firm affiliated with a pro-DeSantis super PAC.
The documents contain a load of information — including polling data and analysis of other candidates’ attack styles — intended to guide DeSantis, one of several candidates for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination who has struggled to gain momentum in his challenge of Trump.
The documents, first reported by the New York Times, were posted earlier this month to the website of Axiom Strategies, a firm owned by the chief strategist of the pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down. Federal law prohibits super PACs from coordinating with political campaigns on spending and messaging, but super PACs have typically worked around such rules by publicly posting memos containing research and strategy.
One memo obtained by The Washington Post, which has since been deleted from Axiom’s website, lays out four “must-dos” for DeSantis at Wednesday’s primary debate in Milwaukee. Those include attacking Biden and the media at least three times, stating his “positive vision” for the country at least twice, attacking entrepreneur and fellow Republican primary candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, and defending Trump, who has said he may not participate in debates.
“This was not a campaign memo and we were not aware of it prior to the article,” Andrew Romeo, communications director for the DeSantis campaign, said in a statement Thursday. “We are by now well accustomed to the attacks from all sides as the media and other candidates realize Ron DeSantis is the strongest candidate best positioned to take down Joe Biden.”
The memo contains the subject line “RE: Orchestra pit,” a reference to the late Fox News chairman Roger Ailes’s theory that making mistakes and choreographing attacks are more likely to garner media coverage than articulating policy positions during a televised debate.
“You have two guys onstage and one guy says, ‘I have a solution to the Middle East problem,’ and the other guy falls in the orchestra pit,” Ailes once said. “Who do you think is going to be on the evening news?”
The document, which refers to DeSantis as “GRD,” then proposes four potential “orchestra pit moments” for him, including telling a story about his family (“showing emotion,” the memo advises) and taking “a sledgehammer to” Ramaswamy by slamming him as “Fake Vivek” or “Vivek the Fake.” The memo also suggests that DeSantis urge other candidates to ignore Trump, because Trump is “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 suggests for DeSantis’s response if former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, another GOP presidential candidate, attacks Trump on the debate stage.
The memo, which advises DeSantis to both defend Trump and attack the former president as “weak,” illustrates the tightrope DeSantis has tried to walk while challenging the former president and trying not to alienate his base. For months, DeSantis dodged questions about Trump’s efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss. But in recent weeks he has gone farther than usual in criticizing Trump, saying that all the stolen-election theories were false and calling Trump’s insults inconsistent with “the way the president of the United States should be conducting himself.”
The document trove also includes reports on how each of several competitors — including prominent candidates such as Christie and Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.); and lower-polling candidates such as Miami Mayor Francis Suarez and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum — have previously attacked DeSantis. The Florida governor’s feud with Disney over the company’s opposition to a state law about teaching gender and sexuality is mentioned in several documents.
There are two additional memos about Ramaswamy, including one outlining his positions on marijuana legalization, mask-wearing during the covid-19 pandemic and transgender people in the military. The document collection also includes a report about Scott’s positions on various issues.
In response to news about the document trove Thursday, campaigns for at least two of the challengers mentioned in the memos hit back at DeSantis.
“Vivek’s job on Aug. 23 is to introduce himself and his vision to the American people,” said Tricia McLaughlin, a spokesperson for Ramaswamy’s campaign. “These boring, canned attack lines from a robotic candidate doesn’t change that.”
The pro-Christie “Tell It Like It Is” super PAC sent an email to supporters Thursday mocking DeSantis’s debate prep memo, with a subject line “Debate Strategy for CJC,” and only one sentence in the body of the email: “Be yourself, and Tell It Like It Is.”
Officials with the Never Back Down super PAC and the DeSantis campaign have questioned each other’s strategy at times, according to people familiar with the conversations, and the ideas laid out by Never Back Down in its debate prep memo do not necessarily align with the campaign’s approach.
DeSantis has overwhelmingly focused on drawing contrasts with Trump, the far-and-away front-runner for the nomination, in his interviews and speeches. But his campaign has also drawn contrasts with lower-polling rivals in recent weeks as they draw more attention.
A campaign memo dated early July singled out Scott for criticism, saying his “bio is lacking the fight that our electorate is looking for” and predicting “appropriate scrutiny in the weeks ahead.”
A near-daily DeSantis campaign email to reporters also trains most of its fire on Trump and Biden but has recently highlighted more unflattering news stories on Scott and Ramaswamy under the heading “What the Others Are Reading.”
Romeo, the DeSantis communications director, said the campaign emails highlighted “everyone,” noting that stories on Biden, Christie and other GOP primary candidates former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley and former vice president Mike Pence have also been featured.
Representatives for Never Back Down did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
Trump and 18 of his allies were criminally charged this week in connection with efforts to overturn Biden’s 2020 win in Georgia. Trump’s team has opened negotiations about scheduling his surrender, which could take place on or near the day of the debate in Milwaukee, according to a person close to the former president.
In Trump’s absence, DeSantis and his campaign have been preparing to become a top target on the debate stage. DeSantis has enlisted Brett O’Donnell, a veteran of debate prep in presidential campaigns, according to a person familiar with the campaign’s strategy who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private preparations.
“If you look at how this field develops, clearly, I’m the only guy that Trump’s campaign attacks, basically. And then the other candidates, a lot of them don’t really say much about Donald Trump, and they focus more on me,” DeSantis said in an interview this week. “So we’re going to be ready for all of that.”
Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.