Trump says the primary's over. But he's still fighting his rivals like it's not. – NBC News
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MIAMI — At times this year, former President Donald Trump has sounded like a candidate who already won the Republican Party’s nomination as he rips President Joe Biden from stages across the country.
That’s the strategy his team telegraphed: run like the primary is nothing more than a distraction.
On Oct. 29, the Trump campaign sent out a fundraising email proclaiming that the race was “coming to a GLORIOUS END.”
But on Wednesday, when his Republican rivals gather for rhetorical combat at an NBC News-sponsored primary debate here, Trump will try to draw attention away from them at a rally in nearby Hialeah. It’s the third time Trump has run counterprogramming against a Republican primary debate that he chose to skip, at least in part to suggest that he is not worried about his chances of winning the nomination.
He is scheduled to appear there with Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, whose endorsement this week appeared to be designed to counter the nod Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis got from Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds.
At the same time, MAGA Inc., a Trump-aligned super PAC, spent about $1 million on airtime in Iowa last week to slam DeSantis, according to data from AdImpact.
More broadly, Trump has continued to campaign regularly in the states with early nomination contests. In October, Trump spent four days in Iowa and two days in New Hampshire, according to NBC News’ candidate tracker.
For some of his critics, it all amounts to Trump talking out of both sides of his mouth to primary voters: trying to convince them simultaneously that he already has won the race and that he needs their votes.
“If Donald Trump had it sewed up, he would not be spending that kind of money,” DeSantis, who is running second to Trump in national polling, told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt — host of “The Hugh Hewitt Show” on Salem Radio Network — last week. (Hewitt will be one of the moderators at the debate Wednesday night, along with NBC “Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt and “Meet the Press” moderator Kristen Welker.)
There is no question that Trump has a commanding lead over the field in both national surveys and state-by-state polling. He’s been boosted in recent days by high-profile national polls that show him running ahead of Biden in a general election — numbers that weaken his opponents’ arguments that he would lose again if he is nominated.
Yet, with DeSantis focusing the bulk of his money and energy on the Jan. 15 first caucuses in Iowa, Trump has focused at least one eye on the Florida governor. At times, that eye has shifted toward the surging former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, whom he calls “birdbrain.” Haley pulled into a 16-points-apiece tie with DeSantis for second place in Iowa in an October NBC News poll, with both trailing Trump’s 43% by a wide margin.
Trump spokesman Steven Cheung said DeSantis is in for a reckoning that he’s not expecting.
“Ron DeSantis is looking at this from a child’s point of view,” Cheung said. “That’s been his malfunction throughout this election. He has no idea what he’s going to endure in the next few months.”
It wouldn’t make sense for Trump’s orbit to completely ignore DeSantis, in particular, because the Florida governor has raised enough money to loom as at least a potential threat, said one aide on previous Trump campaigns who is still in touch with the former president’s advisers.
“You can’t lay off them completely, knowing that he has bullets left in the chamber,” the former aide said, adding that Trump is resisting advice to run more as a presumptive nominee than as a candidate in a dogfight.
“This is a situation where you have Donald Trump not doing the strategic thing and doing the ‘I need an enemy’ thing,” the former aide said. “There are definitely people inside the campaign right now that are trying to get him to stop attacking DeSantis as much as he is, and [he is] reverting just to the personal politics of it all.”
The DeSantis campaign sees an affirmation that it has Trump worried.
“After months of pounding their chest that they already had the race won, Team Trump is now being forced to publicly admit that Ron DeSantis is climbing higher in Iowa and is a dire threat to their chances of securing the nomination,” DeSantis spokesman Andrew Romeo said.
“Their shift in ad strategy and over $1 million they are spending against DeSantis this week alone confirms that they know what we do — Ron DeSantis has Trump on defense in the Hawkeye State,” he added.
Trump is fond of using an analogy to the NFL, in which teams with big leads sometimes play what is called “prevent defense,” allowing the opposing squad to pick up chunks of ground to try to avert quick scores. Trump says that’s a bad strategy in football — and in politics.
“We don’t do prevent defense,” he said in September in South Carolina. “We just go on the offense.”
Trump advisers believe that knocking Biden is a two-tiered tactic that helps them lay the groundwork for the general election, while signaling to primary voters that Trump is the toughest opponent for the president they want to oust. Several of his rivals have argued to primary voters that Trump can’t beat Biden — even as recent polling suggests he can.
Chris LaCivita, a co-manager of Trump’s campaign, said the former president is doing what he needs to do to win.
“I don’t know how to respond to a question about why are we running a campaign?” he said.
Jonathan Allen is a senior national politics reporter for NBC News, based in Washington.
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