As former President Donald Trump blinks on the abortion debate, his likely top rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, is taking an opportunity to fight him on a key 2024 election issue that is shaping up to be as divisive in the Republican primary as it will be in the general.
DeSantis, who is expected to publicly announce his presidential plans in the coming weeks, took a direct swing at Trump on Tuesday after the current GOP presidential front-runner suggested that Florida’s new six-week abortion ban was “too harsh.”
Asked about that remark, DeSantis said the legislation he signed is something that “probably 99% of pro-lifers support.”
The governor noted that Trump had dodged on whether he would back that bill.
“As a Florida resident, you know, he didn’t give an answer about, ‘Would you have signed the heartbeat bill that Florida did, that had all the exceptions that people talk about?'” he said.
“The Legislature put it in, I signed the bill, I was proud to do it,” DeSantis said, adding, “He won’t answer whether he would sign it or not.”
The governor’s remarks at a bill-signing event marked a rare rebuttal to Trump, who has spent months bludgeoning his potential primary rival with attacks that have mostly gone unanswered.
Trump was a main catalyst for last year’s lethal blow to federal abortion rights, as he appointed three of the conservative Supreme Court justices who voted to overturn Roe v. Wade. That seismic ruling made good on Trump’s 2016 campaign promise to put abortion regulations back in the hands of the states.
It was the biggest-ever win for conservatives whose opposition to abortion protections has been a rallying cry for decades. But it drew a ferocious backlash.
Many voters, incensed by the sudden loss of what had been a constitutional right for nearly five decades, flocked to the polls in the November midterms, and pro-abortion rights Democrats broadly outperformed expectations that had strongly favored Republicans. Surveys showed the high court’s ruling galvanized turnout among young voters, women and those voting in a general election for the first time.
Now, as he looks for another term in the White House, Trump has shown comparatively little interest in flaunting his record on abortion. When pressed to detail what his abortion agenda would look like if he won in 2024, the pugilistic ex-president has opted for a softer, less committed tone than some of his competitors.
Trump himself underlined that contrast when asked in a recent interview about the six-week abortion ban that DeSantis had just signed in Florida.
“Many people within the pro-life movement feel that that was too harsh,” Trump said in an interview published Monday with The Messenger. He demurred on whether he felt the same way, or whether he would sign a similar ban.
“I’m looking at all alternatives. I’m looking at many alternatives,” Trump said.
He was similarly hard to pin down in a recent CNN town hall, declining to say if he would sign a federal abortion ban or what other policies he might favor instead.
“What I will do is negotiate so that people are happy,” Trump said, while defending his efforts that led to Roe’s reversal.
Trump may be speaking with a general-election audience in mind: National polls tend to show most voters support abortion rights, especially following the Supreme Court’s ruling. Surveys also show voters consider the issue extremely important to them.
President Joe Biden has taken notice: His reelection announcement video slammed what he described as Republican “MAGA extremists” who are bent on “dictating what health care decisions women can make.”
But DeSantis’ willingness to hit Trump from the right on abortion could also be a strategic one. A recent Wall Street Journal poll found a strong majority of likely Republican primary voters, 68% to 27%, supported banning most abortions after six weeks.
Those numbers could be emboldening the governor, who otherwise has appeared to go out of his way to avoid alienating the swath of Republican voters still highly sensitive to criticism of Trump.
Other candidates, both those who have declared their campaigns and those who are considering taking the plunge, seem to be making their own calculations.
Trump’s former vice president, Mike Pence, has reaffirmed his staunchly anti-abortion views as he appears to be inching toward his own White House bid. He has also come out against a widely used abortion pill, mifepristone, saying he wants the medication taken off the market.
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, who launched a Republican presidential exploratory committee last month, has said that he would limit abortions to “no more than 15 weeks” of pregnancy if elected president.
Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, meanwhile, distinguished herself by addressing the abortion debate head on, saying in a speech that the next president must find a “national consensus.”