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Analysis-DeSantis' dream of a two-horse race on hold as others shine at Republican debate

By Gram Slattery

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Florida Governor Ron DeSantis emerged from the first Republican presidential debate having retained his position as Donald Trump's top rival, but the absence of a game-changing moment for him means other contenders now see more of a chance to dislodge him from his vulnerable No. 2 spot.

The governor's team had gone into the debate in Milwaukee hoping to draw a line under a summer slide in the polls and begin consolidating his position as the obvious alternative to former President Donald Trump, who holds a nearly 40-point lead in most polls.

But while his gaffe-free performance Wednesday evening satisfied allies who argued he articulated a clear rationale for his candidacy, it was former tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and former Vice President Mike Pence who received much of the airtime and attention.

According to the latest Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted before the debate, 8% of Republicans supported Pence, 7% backed Ramaswamy and 5% supported Haley. DeSantis stood at 13%, though he will need to steal support from lower-polling rivals if he is to catch Trump, who stood at some 47%.

Haley emerged from the debate as the candidate most likely to receive a second look, according to interviews with 10 political strategists, donors and bundlers. Ramaswamy likely won over some voters with his aggressive and freewheeling style, they said, though some donors were put off by the tech entrepreneur's frequent attacks on opponents.

"I don't think a lot changed in terms of (DeSantis') strength," said Brett Doster, a Tallahassee-based political consultant, who is friendly with DeSantis' team.

He said Haley, who confronted Ramaswamy in one spirited exchange in which she defended the role of the United States in Ukraine, had "scored points" with donors.

Robert Doar, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, a major conservative think tank, said after the debate it was still to be determined who was the best positioned alternative to take on Trump.

"We still don't quite know who that will be," he said.

One significant donor who remains on the fence said DeSantis had said little to win him over.

"It was a crappy debate," said the person, who requested anonymity to preserve his political relationships.

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Candidates like Pence, Haley and South Carolina Senator Tim Scott receiving attention from donors and voters is bad news for DeSantis. His campaign burned through cash at an unexpectedly fast rate in the early summer and DeSantis will be dependent on new donors entering the fray to keep his operation on the rails.

He has already suffered some major defections. The largest donor to the main outside spending group supporting him, Never Back Down, told Reuters last month that he was cutting the governor off for the time being due to policy differences.

In conversations in recent weeks, DeSantis' allies portrayed the first debate as a key part of his plan to jumpstart his campaign. In recent days, however, some close allies began to temper those expectations, saying he had to mount a competent defense, and then prepare to hit the campaign trail hard this fall, when many voters tune in in earnest.

"DeSantis assertively laid out his vision for America and showed he was ready to be president," said Dan Eberhart, a close DeSantis ally and donor. "DeSantis looked steady and ready."

Jay Zeidman, a Houston-based donor and DeSantis bundler, said "the governor did what he needed to do" at the debate.

"What did happen seemed like a scrum for third place. Nikki, Pence and Christie went for Vivek," said Zeidman. "He's a lot of hat and no cattle, as we say in Texas."

Still, campaign aides had said he was girding for constant attacks on the debate stage, which never came to pass. One person close to the governor, who requested anonymity to discuss internal strategy, had predicted those attacks would help the governor reveal himself to more voters, as he would be allotted more rebuttal time than his opponents.

But DeSantis was hardly mentioned by his rivals, and he ended up speaking less than Pence, Haley and Ramaswamy.

Two people involved the campaign's operations acknowledged DeSantis would likely need to take on his low-polling foes on the campaign trail in the near future. And there are indications that DeSantis' allies are already pushing him to do so.

Never Back Down, which has taken over many functions of DeSantis' campaign, posted opposition research regarding Ramaswamy on a public website last week as well as polling in multiple states comparing DeSantis' standing to Scott, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and others.

The next debate will take place in late September in California.

"The first debate is always your opportunity to learn and improve," said Doster, the Republican operative from Tallahassee.

(Reporting by Gram Slattery in Washington; Additional reporting by James Oliphant in Washington and Alexandra Ulmer in San Francisco, editing by Ross Colvin)