Ron DeSantis under fire for ‘listless vessels’ remark, and more campaign trail takeaways

Just days before the first Republican debate, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is taking heat from conservatives after what many saw as his calling some supporters of former President Donald Trump "listless vessels."

DeSantis' campaign, trying to put out the fire, stated the "dishonest media refuses to report the facts" and asserted the comment was a reference to members of Congress — not voters.

Trump, meanwhile, is using new polling data to defend his absence from the upcoming debate in Wisconsin. The former president, in a further snub to Fox News, has taped an interview with Tucker Carlson instead.

And the deadline for candidates to make it onto the Milwaukee stage was Monday night.

Here's what to know from the campaign trail on Monday.

DeSantis' 'listless vessel' comment draws Trump team's ire

DeSantis made the remark during an interview with the Florida Standard when asked about criticism from the MAGA orbit that he's a RINO, or "Republican in name only."

"We have a strand in our party that views supporting Trump as whether you are a RINO or not," DeSantis countered. "So you could be the most conservative person since sliced bread, unless you're kissing his rear end, they will somehow call you a RINO."

He later added, "If all we are is listless vessels that are just supposed to follow, you know, whatever happens to come down the pike on Truth Social every morning, that's not going to be a durable movement."

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks in Des Moines, Iowa, July 14, 2023.Scott Morgan/Reuters, FILE

The pushback from many conservatives was swift, with some comparing DeSantis' remark to those made by Hillary Clinton in the 2016 race.

"Looks like Ron DeSanctimonious just had his 'Basket of Deplorables' moment. Not good!" Jason Miller, a senior adviser for Trump's campaign, posted to X. Miller was referring to Clinton's remark in 2016 characterizing "half" of Trump's supporters.

Donald Trump Jr. also said DeSantis was taking a page from "the Crooked Hillary Clinton strategy."

Bryan Griffin, a spokesperson for DeSantis, pushed back that the governor was talking about elected officials not voters.

"The dishonest media refuses to report the facts—Donald Trump and some congressional endorsers are 'listless vessels.' Why? Because Trump and DC insiders feel he is entitled to your vote," Griffin wrote on in a social media post. "[Ron DeSantis] believes your trust should be earned and has the vision, plan, and record to beat Joe Biden and reverse the decline of our country. That's why Ron DeSantis will be showing up on Wednesday night to debate, and Donald Trump will not."

DeSantis continued to make that point when asked to clarify his comment Monday on Fox News.

"The people in Congress that I was referring to, that have attacked me and tried to say somehow that I was a RINO, they're putting entertainment and personality over principle. Our voters want us to stand on principle and fight for them," DeSantis told Fox News host Martha MacCallum.

Trump points to polling lead as he snubs debate

Trump announced Sunday he would not be going to the debate, citing polls showing him with a substantial lead over his Republican rivals.

The former president wrote on Truth Social that "the public knows who I am & what a successful Presidency I had."

In one survey touted by Trump, he is shown with a 20-point lead over nearest DeSantis (42%-19%) among likely Iowa Republican caucusgoers. But a majority of Republican caucusgoers in Iowa — 52% — said their minds aren't made up, and they could be persuaded to support another candidate, according to the NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll conducted by Iowa pollster J. Ann Selzer.

Sources told ABC News Trump already taped an interview with Carlson as counter-programming to the debate.

Some of his Republican rivals have criticized him for being a no-show. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said if "he's not tough enough" to debate the issues, then Trump should "retire."

Debate qualification deadline is tonight

Candidates had until 9 p.m. ET Monday to show they've met the Republican National Committee's requirements to participate in Wednesday night's debate.

Eight Republicans have qualified so far, including Christie, DeSantis, Tim Scott, Mike Pence, Asa Hutchinson, Vivek Ramaswamy, Nikki Haley and Doug Burgum.

Several more were on the cusp, including businessman Perry Johnson, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez and former Rep. Will Hurd.

A Republican Debate sign is up outside Fiserv Forum in preparation of the Aug. 23 debate in Milwaukee, Aug. 21, 2023.Mike De Sisti /The Milwaukee Journal via USA Today Network

Some candidates are using the calm before the storm of the first debate to showcase other skills.

Ramaswamy, who qualified in July for Wednesday's debate, posted on X (formerly Twitter) on Monday morning a video of himself playing an intense game of tennis while shirtless against an unseen opponent.

"Three hours of solid debate prep this morning," Ramaswamy wrote in the post.

Ramaswamy is a political newcomer, but not new to tennis; he played it in college and has posted about continuing to play while on the campaign trail.

Biden's $25 million battleground states push

Biden's campaign is launching a $25 million ad buy in Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin over the next four months.

The 8-figure ad buy comes ahead of the first GOP primary debate in Milwaukee on Wednesday — the first ads go up Wednesday the campaign said — and are part of the Democrats' counter-programming efforts.   "While Republicans duke it out in Milwaukee over their divisive and unpopular agenda, President Biden is amplifying his winning message and leadership as a president for all Americans," Biden campaign manager Julie Chavez Rodriguez said in a statement.   The ads will also air during NFL Kickoff and the World Series, according to the campaign.

President Joe Biden delivers remarks at Camp David, Aug. 18, 2023 in Camp David, Md.Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, FILE

The ad campaign will "aggressively" target African American and Hispanic voters, two groups that Democrats often rely on to make up their base of support, according to Biden's team.

The first ad, titled "Fought back," begins with scenes from the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic downturn, before touting Biden's legislative accomplishments: The American Rescue Plan, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Inflation Reduction Act, and the CHIPS Act.   It also includes a shot of Trump, over which the narrator says: "There are some who say America is failing. Not Joe Biden."


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