As former President Donald Trump hesitates on the abortion debate, his likely top privilege, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, is taking the opportunity to run against him on a key election issue in 2024 that is proving just as divisive in the Republican primary , as they will be just be in general.
DeSantis, who is expected to publicly announce his presidential plans in the coming weeks, reached out directly to Trump on Tuesday after the current Republican presidential nominee suggested that Florida’s new six-week abortion ban was “too strict.”
When asked about the comment, DeSantis said the law he signed was something that “probably 99% of pro-life supporters support.”
The governor noted that Trump was dodgy on whether he would support the bill.
“As a Florida resident, he didn’t answer the question, ‘Would you have signed the Florida Heartbeat Act that contained all the exceptions that people are talking about?'” he said.
“The legislature brought it in, I signed the bill, I was proud of it,” DeSantis said, adding, “He’s not going to answer whether he would sign it or not.”
The governor’s remarks at a bill signing event provided a rare rebuttal from Trump, who has spent months blasting his key potential rival with attacks that have largely gone unanswered.
Trump was one of the main catalysts in the fatal blow to state abortion law last year when he appointed three of the conservative Supreme Court justices responsible for overturning Roe v. Wade voted. That staggering ruling fulfilled Trump’s 2016 campaign promise to put abortion regulations back in the hands of states.
It was the biggest victory ever for conservatives, whose opposition to abortion protections has been a catchphrase for decades. But it sparked a violent backlash.
Many voters, outraged by the sudden loss of what had been a constitutional right for nearly five decades, flocked to the polls in November’s midterm elections, as did pro-abortion Democrats by and large exceeded expectations, which had heavily favored Republicans. Polls showed that the Supreme Court ruling boosted turnout among young voters, women and those voting in a general election for the first time.
Now, as he seeks another term in the White House, Trump has shown comparatively little interest in flaunting his record on abortion. When asked to detail what his abortion agenda would be if he won in 2024, the combative ex-president opted for a softer, less committed tone than some of his peers.
Trump himself underscored this contrast when asked in a recent interview about the six-week abortion ban that DeSantis just signed in Florida.
“A lot of people within the pro-life movement think that’s too harsh,” Trump said in an interview with The Messenger published Monday. He doubted if he would feel the same or if he would sign a similar ban.
“I’m looking at all the alternatives. I’m looking at a lot of alternatives,” Trump said.
He was similarly hard to pin down at a recent CNN town hall when he refused to say whether he would sign a federal abortion ban or what other measures he would advocate instead.
“What I’m going to do is negotiate so people are happy,” Trump said, while defending his efforts that led to Roe’s about-face.
Trump may be speaking to a general election audience: National polls tend to show most voters support abortion rights, especially after the Supreme Court ruling. Polls also show that voters consider the issue to be extremely important.
President Joe Biden took note: in his re-election announcement video, he criticized Republican “MAGA extremists” bent on “dictating what healthcare decisions women can make.”
But DeSantis’ willingness to attack Trump from the right on abortion could also be strategic. A recent Wall Street Journal poll found that a strong majority of likely Republican primary voters, 68% versus 27%, supported a ban on most abortions after six weeks.
Those numbers may encourage the governor, who otherwise appears to be doing everything he can to avoid upsetting a crowd of Republican voters who are still very sensitive to criticism of Trump.
Other candidates, both those who have declared their campaign and those considering taking the step, appear to be doing their own calculations.
Trump’s former Vice President Mike Pence has reiterated his tough anti-abortion policies as he appears to be slowly moving towards his own candidacy for the White House. He has also spoken out against the widely used abortion pill mifepristone, saying he wants the drug off the market.
South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, who created a Republican presidential select committee last month, said he would limit abortions to “no more than 15 weeks” of gestation if he were elected president.
Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, meanwhile, notable for addressing the abortion debate head-on, saying in a speech that the next president needs to find a “national consensus”.