During his first run for statewide office in 2018, Ron DeSantis grappled with a key problem he may soon face again in his potential bid for the 2024 White House: how not to alienate Donald Trump’s base.
“Is there an issue on which you disagree with President Trump?” DeSantis was asked by Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz in footage obtained exclusively by ABC News of the team’s mock debate sessions during DeSantis’ 2018 run for governor.
“I need to figure out how to do this,” then-Congressman DeSantis replied while heaving a deep sigh.
“Obviously there is, because I mean, I voted against him in Congress,” DeSantis continued. “I have to put it in a way that doesn’t upset all of his constituents.”
DeSantis further suggests that he would respond by saying he would “do what I think is right” and “support”. [Trump’s] Agenda.”
“If I have a disagreement, I talk to him privately,” he said.
ABC News received nearly two and a half hours of raw internal tapes of DeSantis 2018 debate prep sessions that were previously unreleased. His comments in the videos provide a rare glimpse of how the Florida governor, now poised to enter the 2024 Republican primary, previously calculated how to effectively appeal to Donald Trump’s fiercely loyal base while also working to build his own lane to find as a presidential nominee — a balance DeSantis may need to refine if he wants to secure the party’s nomination in 2024.
A DeSantis representative declined to comment when contacted by ABC News.
These new videos come amid recent reports from ABC News that the DeSantis team has already quietly begun preparing for the debate for the upcoming GOP primary, including reviewing previous debate performances, sources familiar with the preparations said. DeSantis is now likely to skip announcing an exploratory committee, despite previous reports, and instead is expected to launch a full campaign next month, sources said.
In the 2018 tapes, DeSantis sometimes stands behind a podium and battles with his advisors—including Gaetz and then-State Representative Byron Donalds—as they role-play DeSantis’ opponents and work through problems and possible answers to a series of questions, including The Question whether he would accept funding from the NRA.
“Did the NRA donate to me?” DeSantis asks his team at one point.
“I don’t think the NRA is quite the bogeyman that the Democrats think they are,” he later said.
Gaetz and Donalds, now both Republican congressmen from Florida, have both endorsed Trump’s third bid for the White House in 2024.
The tapes, which show two separate debate prep sessions during DeSantis’ 2018 gubernatorial campaign against Democrat Andrew Gillum, also show DeSantis’ team privately working through what they raise as governor sympathy issues.
During a videotaped session, an aide suggests that DeSantis write the word “LIKABLE” in capital letters at the top of his legal pad as soon as he comes to the podium on debate night.
“I do the same thing because I have the same personality, we’re both aggressive,” the off-camera consultant tells DeSantis.
“You want to have that personable, dismissive tone and not be condescending,” a consultant tells DeSantis during an off-camera exchange elsewhere in the video, to which DeSantis replies, “Yeah, definitely.”
At another point in the session, DeSantis dismisses some of his team’s suggestions on how to hit his opponent.
“Some of the ones that are digs, I don’t think they work,” DeSantis can be heard saying, off-camera. “I think it makes me look like an ass—-.”
Sources tell ABC News that while preparing for DeSantis’ main debate over the past few weeks, his team has been paying close attention to how it can help manage the governor’s facial reactions.
DeSantis’ facial expressions could be seen during his recent trip to Japan when asked if he was trailing Trump in polls. His animated response to the question went viral, with one clip garnering nearly 20 million views.
“Ron has always had a problem letting attacks get to him and being visibly shaken by them,” a former aide who previously helped set up debates with DeSantis told ABC News. “I’m not sure how that would work if Trump faced him.”