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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Puerto Rico at center of revived team Trump attack ads against DeSantis in Iowa

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican presidential candidate, speaks at the First in the Nation Leadership Summit in Nashua, N.H. on Oct. 13, 2023. (John Tully/The New York Times)

By Maggie Haberman and Shane Goldmacher

The super PAC supporting Donald Trump will begin airing an attack against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in Iowa, a shift in strategy after months of focusing its messaging on its likely general election opponent.

It will enter the rotation as part of an ad buy totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars by the group Make America Great Again, which supports Trump. It aims to paint DeSantis, with less than three months before the state’s first-in-the-nation caucuses, as insufficiently conservative, by accusing him of supporting statehood for Puerto Rico.

It marks a change in approach by the super political action committee, which abandoned negative ads about DeSantis at the start of this past summer. The group shifted to focusing on the likely general election opponent, and attacking President Joe Biden, beginning in August, a move that might appeal to some primary voters but that also sent the message that Team Trump saw DeSantis as a fading threat.

DeSantis’ team took something of a victory lap over the existence of the ad, with Andrew Romeo, a spokesperson, saying it showed that “after months of pounding their chest that they already had the race won, Team Trump is now being forced to publicly admit that Ron DeSantis is climbing in Iowa, and is a dire threat to their chances of securing the nomination.”

Romeo described a litany of problems such as the southern border crisis and the war in the Middle East and said that amid all of it, “Team Trump inexplicably has decided to level false and hypocritical attacks on Ron DeSantis … about Puerto Rico.”

An official with the super PAC declined to comment on the ad.

Trump’s team appears to be trying to crush DeSantis in the state where he has turned his focus in the remaining weeks before the caucuses. And the fresh attacks are coming as he tries to stave off Haley, pushing him into a two-front political battle with reduced resources.

“Liberals have a plan to make Puerto Rico a state, adding two Democrats to the Senate, and Ron DeSantis sided with the liberals’ power play,” the ad says. “Ron DeSantis sponsored the bill to make Puerto Rico a state.”

It ends by saying, “DeSantis sided with the liberals and sold out Iowa conservatives. Ron DeSantis is just plain wrong.”

The topic of statehood for Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory since 1898, has been politically charged for years, with many Republicans opposing it, suggesting it would help Democrats electorally. As a congressman, DeSantis, along with several other members, co-sponsored a bill that did not openly call for statehood for Puerto Rico, but laid out a path by which it could be accomplished. DeSantis’ state has a number of Puerto Rican constituents, and his support for an effort to explore a pathway to statehood was politically resonant in Florida.

The ad comes as DeSantis is fending off the threat of movement in the state by Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, after DeSantis had held steady in second place for months, though well behind Trump.

DeSantis’ team pointed to a statement Trump gave in early 2016, as a first-time candidate, in which he also supported a process for Puerto Rican statehood.

But since then, and during his presidency, Trump was adamantly opposed to statehood, primarily after officials in Puerto Rico criticized his performance in response to Hurricane Maria.

DeSantis has also been critical of Puerto Rican statehood more recently, and in starkly political terms.

In a recent virtual event with voters in the Virgin Islands, which is holding its primary in February, DeSantis was asked about whether he would support territories gaining a voice in the Electoral College.

“Well, how would the Virgin Islands vote for president — would they be red or blue?” he said to laughs, according to a recording of his remarks.

“I don’t want to pony up three electoral votes for the other team.”

He later added: “People are Americans and they should be treated as equal citizens. How that works with the Electoral College, you know, I’m not sure that there’s going to be necessarily a movement on that front.”

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