Bob Sikorski, a 57-year-old business owner in Portage Lakes, Ohio, admires the skill Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida shows on policy and is open to supporting him in a presidential primary. But the longtime Republican voter warned there was one sure way to turn him away: any direct criticism of former President Donald J. Trump.
“That would just be really bad for the party — and for the country — and would absolutely turn me off,” Mr. Sikorski said after watching Mr. DeSantis speak on Thursday at an event in Akron.
Most candidates spend their time worrying about what voters think of them. For Mr. DeSantis, the main question hovering over his expected presidential bid has nothing to do with him. Instead, it’s what do voters think of Mr. Trump?
A new polling analysis from Monmouth University for The New York Times shows support for Mr. DeSantis roughly split between those who have a favorable opinion of Mr. Trump — and those who don’t. And in a more crowded field of Republican presidential hopefuls, the same poll shows the Florida governor losing ground against Mr. Trump almost exclusively because of “Never Trumpers,” who say they would back other candidates.
“Voters who like Trump account for at least half of DeSantis’s current support,” said Patrick Murray, the director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “That group is currently the most stable for him in a multicandidate field.”
The poll was taken March 16-20, concluding 10 days before a Manhattan grand jury indicted Mr. Trump in a case involving hush-money payments to a porn actress. Public polls since then suggest Mr. Trump has continued to widen his lead over Mr. DeSantis.
Gov. Ron DeSantis and His Administration
The Republican governor of Florida has turned the swing state into a right-wing laboratory by leaning into cultural battles.
As he prepares a presidential campaign, Mr. DeSantis has had to determine how to persuade Republicans to peel away from Mr. Trump and support him instead. If Mr. DeSantis attacks Mr. Trump, which he has so far largely avoided, he may alienate supporters who still hold the former president in high regard. But if he campaigns as the heir to the mantle of Trumpism, he risks repelling one-fifth of Republicans who say they don’t like Mr. Trump.
The Florida governor’s choreography of this political two-step will color every speech he delivers and each bill he signs.
On Thursday, Florida lawmakers approved legislation that would ban abortion in the state after six weeks of pregnancy, and later in the evening Mr. DeSantis said on Twitter he had signed the bill into law. His support for the measure reflects a broader political strategy to battle Mr. Trump for control of the party’s right wing: While Mr. DeSantis has been reluctant to weigh in on strict anti-abortion measures that have turned off some moderate voters in his party, his support for the Florida law will please the party’s powerful anti-abortion activists.
A spokesman for Mr. DeSantis did not respond to a request for comment.
Interviews with Republican voters at DeSantis events across three states in the past month show that they are eager to hear more from the Florida governor about who he is and what he would do in office, and less about the man he would supplant as leader of the party. Mr. DeSantis hasn’t formally opened a presidential bid, but he is expected to do so sometime after the state legislative session ends next month. He has traveled the country giving speeches at events for the Republican Party and for his book tour for much of the year.
At a book promotion on New York’s Long Island last month, Anthony Falvo, 70, said he wasn’t interested in a third presidential bid from Mr. Trump. And despite being interested in Mr. DeSantis, Mr. Falvo did not want the Florida governor to launch an aggressive campaign against the former president.
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“I would stay away from that,” Mr. Falvo said. “I just think he needs to be stronger with what his message is.”
Mr. DeSantis’s initial strategy has been to build his own base of support without much mention of Mr. Trump.
On Friday, Mr. DeSantis will have a platform to reach out to evangelical voters, an influential bloc of Republican primary voters. He is scheduled to deliver the commencement at Liberty University, the Virginia school founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, a popular televangelist who died in 2007.
In the Iowa city of Davenport, Mark Johnson, a 65-year-old electrical engineer, identified himself as a Trump supporter who was also interested in Mr. DeSantis, saying the governor had “common sense” and “doesn’t do crazy things.”
Asked how Mr. DeSantis could win his support, Mr. Johnson said, “The No. 1 thing is to ignore Trump.”
He added: “He hasn’t really gone after Trump yet, so it would seem out of character. I don’t want a phony, and I know who Trump is — he’s a screwball, but he’s got good policies.”
Some DeSantis allies have privately discussed the potential to peel away Trump supporters without a college degree, noting that Mr. DeSantis performs well with this group of voters, even though most do not know much about him. In the Monmouth poll, Mr. DeSantis had support from 40 percent of Republicans with a high school degree or less in a head-to-head matchup with Mr. Trump; 18 percent of the same respondents said they didn’t know enough about Mr. DeSantis to know whether or not they liked him.
And while Mr. DeSantis has lost considerable ground to Mr. Trump in public polls during the past few months, he has maintained his standing as the party’s top challenger because of backing from Republicans who like Mr. Trump.
In a one-on-one contest against Mr. Trump, Mr. DeSantis wins 76 percent of Republicans who don’t like the former president. But the Florida governor loses about one-third of those Republicans when presented with additional rivals — such as Mr. Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence, or Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina — as presidential primary options.
Mr. Murray, the Monmouth polling director, said the Florida governor’s standing among the Trump base is “why Trump trounces every other candidate except DeSantis.”
“There are a group of Republicans who feel DeSantis is a good successor to Trump and who don’t feel that way about the other candidates,” Mr. Murray said. “But that’s also what’s making it difficult for him.”
Alyce McFadden and Kim Lyons contributed reporting.