Allies of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis outlined a strategy for next week’s GOP presidential primary debate in a memo encouraging him to defend former President Donald Trump from attacks by rival Chris Christie and call upstart contender Vivek Ramaswamy “fake.”
The two-page memo, written by leaders of the pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down, was published to the website of Axiom Strategies and dated Aug. 15. Axiom founder Jeff Roe also leads the pro-DeSantis’ super PAC.
“Defend Trump when Chris Christie attacks him,” the memo reads, adding a potential line for DeSantis to use on stage in Milwaukee against the former governor of New Jersey: “Trump isn’t here so let’s just leave him alone. He’s too weak to defend himself here. We’re all running against him. I don’t think we want to join forces with someone on this stage who’s auditioning for a show on MSNBC.”
On Ramaswamy, the 38-year-old businessman whose long-shot campaign has seen upward movement in the polls in recent weeks, the DeSantis allies write that the Florida governor needs to “take a sledge-hammer” to him, calling him “Fake Vivek” or “Vivek the Fake.”
The New York Times was first to report on the memo. Never Back Down did not immediately respond to a request for comment. On Twitter, Ramaswamy called the attack plan “boring” and hit “Robot Ron” for “taking lame, pre-programmed attack lines against me for next week’s debate.” His spokesperson Tricia McLaughlin added in a statement, “If DeSantis struggles to use a spoon, I can’t imagine he is particularly agile with a sledgehammer.”
Meanwhile, the pro-Christie Tell It Like It Is PAC responded with its own one-sentence debate strategy memo, which read: “Be yourself, and Tell It Like It Is.”
The document offers an insider’s perspective into what DeSantis’ boosters believe he needs to accomplish onstage next Wednesday, listing his defense of Trump and attack on Ramaswamy among “four basic must dos.”
The memo lists two additional overarching goals for DeSantis: Blast President Joe Biden and the media at least three to five times and give a positive vision for the country at least two or three times.
It also lists two approaches for when candidates onstage invoke DeSantis’ name and he is given a chance to respond, referring to the governor as “GRD.”
“1. When there is a core attack on GRD’s central candidacy (calling GRD a liberal, hitting veteran record, hitting conservative record), GRD should take the time, correct the record, and highlight the positive/dismiss the attacker if it’s a tier one candidate,” it read. “GRD can also pivot to hitting Joe Biden when possible.”
“2. If it’s not a core attack but GRD’s name is invoked, GRD should take the response opportunity to pivot and take up time,” the memo continued. “GRD should ignore the weak attack, not even address it, and instead pivot to message and vision and name check Iowa, New Hampshire, etc. voters directly. ‘Iowans/Americans, I’m talking directly to you now….'”
The memo offers a window into how DeSantis is planning for the upcoming contest, in which more than a half dozen candidates will battle on stage. Trump has signaled he is unlikely to attend, which would put DeSantis, currently a distant second behind Trump in most polls, at center stage and more likely to take incoming heat from rivals looking to leapfrog him in the race.
NBC News was made aware of the document’s existence by a person not connected to either the DeSantis campaign or the pro-DeSantis super PAC. It is not uncommon for super PACs to post such memos online, sometimes in hard-to-find places, as a way to get around laws barring coordination between super PACs and political campaigns.
While the memo calls on DeSantis to defend Trump from Christie’s attacks, it also urges DeSantis to convey himself as the leader best positioned to carry “the torch” of Trumpism forward.
“‘He was a breath of fresh air and the first president to tell the elite where to shove it,” the memo reads, suggesting a potential line for the governor. “‘But he was attacked all the time, provoked attacks all the time, and it was non-stop. The drama affected families. Trump’s drama pitted brother against brother, friend against friend. He’s got so many distractions that it’s almost impossible for him to focus on moving the country forward. This election is too important.”
Interestingly, the memo also implores DeSantis to make mention of a “personal anecdote” or “story about his family, children” and/or his wife, Casey DeSantis, while “showing emotion.”
A DeSantis-aligned Republican praised the strategy as a “solid” plan of attack that would highlight his “strengths while exploring the weaknesses of candidates that are not there to seriously contend for nomination but serve their own goals.”
But a veteran Republican strategist not affiliated with any of the presidential campaigns expressed bafflement at by putting these suggestions up online.
“I’ve done media training with multiple sitting governors, members of Congress and other Republican elected officials. In a training session I might give some of these verbal examples, sure,” this person said. “But to write this and then post it? Now he can’t hit Vivek. Because when he does, Vivek is ready and calls him out for his preplanned talking points in this document.
“And I’ve never told someone to hit media a certain number of times,” this person continued. “It’s a thing to do when there’s a s—– question or maybe something you don’t want to answer: It’s a tool, not a strategy. If I wanted to sabotage Ron DeSantis, I’d write this s—– ‘debate strategy memo’ and put it online and then tip off a reporter.”
Allan Smith is a political reporter for NBC News.
Matt Dixon is a senior national politics reporter for NBC News, based in Florida.