Ron DeSantis had a clear mission as he prepared to leave his governor’s mansion in Jacksonville, Florida for Washington this week.
The 44-year-old was on a charm offensive in the US capital, hoping to gain endorsements from Republican congressmen for his fledgling 2024 presidential bid.
But before his plane had even taken off, Mr DeSantis’ plan hit a stumbling block: two congressmen from his own state had just backed Donald Trump.
A quick succession of endorsements for the former president followed on Capitol Hill, eclipsing Mr DeSantis’ trip and any hope of a media boost - all without Mr Trump leaving his beachfront mansion in Palm Beach.
The incident is symptomatic of the early headwinds that a red-faced Mr DeSantis is facing as he prepares to challenge Mr Trump for the Republican nomination.
To mount a convincing bid, Mr DeSantis will need the backing of influential Republican lawmakers.
Mr DeSantis, who is due to travel to Britain this month on a trade mission in a bid to burnish his credentials as an international statesman, began the year riding high after a landslide re-election as Florida’s governor last November.
‘The sharks are circling’
GOP donors saw his decisive win in the country’s largest swing state as evidence that the young governor could be a leader for the party’s next generation.
But a string of missteps and a slump in the polls has slowed his momentum, and led even the most loyal fans to voice doubts about his presidential aspirations.
All eyes are now on Florida’s two Republican senators, Rick Scott (pictured) and Marco Rubio, who hold considerable sway CREDIT: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Some are openly questioning whether Mr DeSantis should declare his candidacy at all.
“The Trump campaign clearly sees blood in the water and the sharks are circling around DeSantis,” GOP strategist Dennis Lennox said of the flurry of endorsements for the former president.
“The question is: can he ride this out? I’m someone who supports him and I’m not sure,” he told the Telegraph.
All eyes are now on Florida’s two Republican senators, Rick Scott and Marco Rubio, who hold considerable sway and are yet to endorse in the 2024 GOP primary.
“If they were to endorse Trump, or just stay neutral, it would be very difficult for DeSantis,” said Mr Lennox, who stressed the importance of support from senior figures in a candidate’s home state.
Allies have also expressed frustration with Mr DeSantis’ lack of charisma and insular approach.
Sources close to the governor have suggested he is overly reliant on his own political instincts and those of his wife, Casey, rather than seasoned campaign managers.
Whit Ayres, who worked for the governor on his 2018 race, said Mr DeSantis had eschewed the staff who helped him win that very close race.
He said: “He has no one around him who has been around him. So he doesn’t have a team around him that has gone through the fire of a very close campaign together.”
Sources close to the governor have suggested he is overly reliant on his own political instincts and those of his wife, Casey, rather than seasoned campaign managers CREDIT: GIORGIO VIERA
Another Republican operative said this was hurting him with both supporters and donors.
“He’s great at governing, but he’s a lousy politician,” the operative said. “He doesn’t slap the backs and shake the hands. He doesn’t remember who the donors are.”
They added: “I have been at events with him where he didn’t shake a single hand, pose for a single photo.”
This lack of finesse when it comes to traditional retail politics is believed to have spooked some donors.
Strategists in Mr DeSantis’ orbit have questioned the delay in announcing his presidential bid, which has hampered his ability to build campaign infrastructure in critical early states.
Mr DeSantis has also caused frustration, with clumsy attempts to navigate the centrist and right-wing factions of his party, referring to the Ukraine war as a “territorial dispute”, for example. He later walked back the comments.
He has caused alarm, too, by signing a six-week abortion ban into law - a time limit that many Americans deem extreme.
The self-proclaimed king of “anti-woke” politics, Mr DeSantis’ national profile has owed much to his willingness to engage in the country’s culture wars.
But his ongoing feud with Disney, the state’s largest employer, has rattled some Republicans.
“It showed a fundamental misunderstanding of the Republican primary process,” said Mr Ayres.
“DeSantis’ job is to consolidate the people who voted for Trump twice, but are looking for an alternative, and you don’t do that by mimicking Trump.”
In a further blow to Mr DeSantis, Mr Trump gained a 13-point advantage over his nearest rival in a Wall Street Journal poll released on Friday, leading 51 per cent to 38 per cent.
It marks a 27-point swing since December, when Mr DeSantis enjoyed a 14-point lead among likely Republican primary voters.
Too soon to write him off?
Some supporters warn against counting Mr DeSantis out too soon, pointing to Mr Trump’s ongoing legal liabilities.
“He’s very bright, he’s very calculating - he’s got a good story to tell,” said Mr Ayres, who warned against prematurely writing off the 44-year-old.