Is Ron DeSantis the Elizabeth Warren of the 2024 election?

Wednesday’s night debate went almost as well as it possibly could have for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. None of his other rivals attacked him, he got out his message, and he even carved out a couple of clip-worthy moments to blast out on social media.

But his performance also illustrated his key vulnerabilities as he tries to build a coalition of voters from all wings of the party who are still skeptical of Donald Trump.

The challenge for DeSantis is that he is trying to be the candidate for two disparate factions. The first is the traditional establishment Republicans who are desperate to get Trump finally off the political stage. These are the voters who thought Trump was good on policy but terrible on personality and were appalled by January 6.

The second are those in the MAGA wing of the party who nonetheless have qualms about Trump as the nominee. Some of them think he didn’t go far enough in office (he never fired Anthony Fauci) or are simply unsure Trump can win in 2024 with all the attacks they see him facing from the “deep state.”

As Vivek Ramaswamy, who is the personification of this faction, put it when describing why some of these voters might be hesitant to make Trump the nominee: “About 30 percent of this country just become psychiatrically ill when he’s in office.” Ramaswamy’s pitch is that he is just as MAGA as Trump without causing liberals to suffer “Trump Derangement Syndrome” and turn out to vote in droves against the GOP.

DeSantis is neither fish nor fowl in this internal tussle. The Florida governor has tried to appeal to both constituencies and seems caught in between. The most obvious example is the muddled mess of his views on US support for Ukraine, the clearest divide between traditional Republicans and those who embrace Trumpian isolationism.

Most Republicans onstage Wednesday vigorously defended US aid to Ukraine. In contrast, Ramaswamy derided the idea of further US support. He described Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as “the pope” to some onstage and claimed former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley’s support for the Eastern European democracy was purely motivated by the desire to join the boards of defense contracting firms.

DeSantis was stuck in the middle and hedged on the issue. “I would have Europe pull their weight. I think our support should be contingent on them doing it,” he said. In March, the Florida governor took heavy criticism from fellow Republicans when he described the war as “a territorial dispute” and said that supporting Ukraine was not a “vital national interest.” He has since walked those statements back.

DeSantis also has been taking harsh criticism from Trump allies because he initially hesitated to raise his hand when candidates were asked if they would support Donald Trump as the nominee if the former president was convicted of a crime in any of the four ongoing criminal cases where he is a defendant. Whereas Ramaswamy quickly raised his hand, DeSantis seemed to slowly look about the stage before doing so. He was equally reluctant when candidates were asked if former Vice President Mike Pence did the right thing on January 6 when he didn’t try to block certification of the 2020 presidential election. He first insisted, “We’ve answered this before.” Eventually, after Pence pressed him, DeSantis conceded, “Mike did his duty. I’ve got no beef with him.”

As one operative affiliated with a rival campaign told Vox, “All Ron had to do to get the love and adoration of conservative media tonight was just be normal. But he muffed the Trump hand raise and he muffed the Ukraine question. So it’s a push when he needed a win.”

The dilemma that DeSantis faces is reminiscent of one in 2020 faced by another lawyer turned legislator with an Ivy League resume, Elizabeth Warren. Then, the Massachusetts senator was trying to steer between mainstream Democrats and the left wing of the party, represented by Bernie Sanders. The best-case scenario for Warren was that she was sufficiently progressive for the Sanders wing of the party but without being too far left for the party establishment.

The litmus tests then were far different. Instead of pledging absolute fealty to a former president under criminal indictment or expressing willingness to cut off support from a democracy facing hostile invasion, the 2020 Democratic primary revolved around relatively academic questions about health care plans. Did candidates support the Medicare-for-all plan that had been a signature proposal of Sanders and, if so, how did they propose paying it? It was a far more theoretical question than those facing the current Republican field: the prospects of such legislation passing Congress were always unlikely at best, but how candidates felt about the issue became a clear indicator of their vision for the Democratic Party. In trying to navigate this division, Warren never quite satisfied anyone. She ended her campaign after not winning a single state.

The question is whether DeSantis will be able to resolve this inherent tension. He will never be as Trumpy as Ramaswamy, let alone as Trump himself. But he still may be too Trumpy for an entire tranche of Republican voters eager to turn the page on the former president.

None of this matters if the race ever narrows down into a one-on-one against Trump — but that matchup has to happen first, and there’s no reason to think it will. His rivals include South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, running as the avatar of the pre-2016 Republican Party with a seemingly unlimited super PAC war chest, and Ramaswamy, who is self-funding his campaign as the ultimate Trump loyalist. There’s no reason to think those two, let alone others like Pence or former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, will simply throw in the towel before Iowa and New Hampshire.

After all, with how DeSantis is faring in the polls at present, why would they?