Trump and DeSantis Super PACs Duel in TV Ads

The super PACs supporting the top two Republican presidential hopefuls have opened a wave of TV attack ads, part of a multimillion-dollar attempt to control the political narrative in the early days of an increasingly likely primary matchup.

The two groups — MAGA Inc., which is backing former President Donald J. Trump, and Never Back Down, supporting Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida — have already spent over $7.5 million combined.

MAGA Inc. has spent exclusively on cable networks, while Never Back Down has targeted states that have traditionally held the party’s earliest presidential nominating contests, according to spokesmen for the two super PACs and data from AdImpact, an ad-tracking firm.

The groups’ opposing methods reflect the politicians’ disparate standings in the party. Mr. Trump, a businessman-turned-TV star who has led two national political campaigns and announced his third last year, is universally recognized inside the party and seeking to leverage that advantage with a broad attack against Mr. DeSantis.

Mr. DeSantis, who has all but declared his 2024 candidacy and who remains a distant second to Mr. Trump in most public opinion polls, is still introducing himself to voters. A poll by the Republican research firm Cygnal in Iowa this month showed 18 percent of respondents said they had either never heard of Mr. DeSantis or didn’t know much about him.

Who’s Running for President in 2024?

The race begins. Four years after a historically large number of candidates ran for president, the field for the 2024 campaign is starting out small and is likely to be headlined by the same two men who ran last time: President Biden and Donald Trump. Here’s who has entered the race so far, and who else might run:

Donald Trump. The former president is running to retake the office he lost in 2020. Though somewhat diminished in influence within the Republican Party — and facing several legal investigations — he retains a large and committed base of supporters, and he could be aided in the primary by multiple challengers splitting a limited anti-Trump vote.

Nikki Haley. The former governor of South Carolina and U.N. ambassador under Trump has presented herself as a member of “a new generation of leadership” and emphasized her life experience as a daughter of Indian immigrants. She was long seen as a rising G.O.P. star but her allure in the party has declined amid her on-again, off-again embrace of Trump.

Vivek Ramaswamy. The multimillionaire entrepreneur and author describes himself as “anti-woke” and is known in right-wing circles for opposing corporate efforts to advance political, social and environmental causes. He has never held elected office and does not have the name recognition of most other G.O.P. contenders.

Asa Hutchinson. The former governor of Arkansas is one of a relatively small number of Republicans who have been openly critical of Trump. Hutchinson has denounced the former president’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election and said Trump should drop out of the presidential race.

President Biden. While Biden has not formally declared his candidacy for a second term, he is widely expected to run. But there has been much hand-wringing among Democrats over whether he should seek re-election given his age. If he does run, Biden’s strategy is to frame the race as a contest between a seasoned leader and a conspiracy-minded opposition.

Marianne Williamson. The self-help author and former spiritual adviser to Oprah Winfrey is running for a second time. In her 2020 campaign, the Democrat called for a federal Department of Peace, supported reparations for slavery and called Trumpism a symptom of an illness in the American psyche that could not be cured with political policies.

Others who might run. Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, former Vice President Mike Pence, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina and Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire are seen as weighing Republican bids for the White House. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a longtime vaccine skeptic, filed paperwork to run as a Democrat.

If he opens a presidential campaign in the coming months, as expected, his chance of defeating Mr. Trump will depend largely on his performance in the early primary states.

Mr. DeSantis should have the resources to make up ground. Never Back Down has said it has already raised $30 million, part of a $110 million war chest available to his allies.

MAGA Inc. reported $54.1 million on hand at the end of 2022. The group has been criticizing Mr. DeSantis in ads for more than a month. The first spot targets Mr. DeSantis’s support for cutting Social Security and increasing the retirement age for Medicare benefits while he was a member of Congress. “The more you learn about DeSantis, the more you see he doesn’t share our values,” the narrator says in the ad.

The most recent spot attacks him over his supposed eating habits and his policy positions. It has aired on CNN, Fox and Newsmax.

The ad accuses Mr. DeSantis of sticking his “dirty fingers” into senior entitlement programs, referring to his support for changes to Medicare and Social Security when he was a member of Congress. The spot also mocks Mr. DeSantis, a fast-food and snack enthusiast, for supposedly once eating pudding with three fingers instead of waiting for a spoon. (Mr. DeSantis has denied this.)

“Ron DeSantis loves sticking his fingers where they don’t belong, and we’re not just talking about pudding,” a narrator says as an anonymous man in a suit sloppily eats pudding with his hands. “DeSantis has his dirty fingers all over senior entitlements like cutting Medicare, slashing Social Security, even raising the retirement age.”

The super PAC supporting Mr. DeSantis, Never Back Down, returned fire this weekend with a spot aiming at Mr. Trump. Its ads are focused on Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, all likely to hold early primaries.

The pro-DeSantis ad opens by reminding viewers of Mr. Trump’s legal troubles. The former president was arrested on April 4 and charged with 34 felonies as part of an investigation into hush-money payments to a porn actress during the 2016 presidential campaign.

The spot, titled “Fight Democrats, Not Republicans,” argues that Mr. Trump should be focused on those legal fights instead of attacking a fellow Republican and asks, “What happened to Donald Trump?”

“Donald Trump has been attacked by a Democrat prosecutor in New York. So why is he spending millions attacking the Republican governor of Florida?” the narrator asks. “Trump’s stealing pages from the Biden-Pelosi playbook, repeating lies about Social Security.”

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