Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is heading into next week’s pivotal GOP primary debate with a target on his back.

While still regarded as the most competitive GOP alternative to former President Trump, DeSantis has seen his numbers slip in some polls while other candidates, like businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), have appeared to close the gap.

And with Trump signaling that he’s likely to skip the debate, DeSantis is staring down a critical moment in his campaign as he takes the stage with at least a half-dozen other candidates who want to knock him from his second-place perch.

“The debate should be an opportunity to take on the frontrunner, but if Trump doesn’t show, then Gov. DeSantis is the frontrunner on that stage,” said GOP donor Dan Eberhart. “He’s going to have to be prepared to fend off attacks from the rest of the field.” 

“It’s a smart strategic move by Trump,” Eberhart added. “He knows Gov. DeSantis is his most serious challenger. This is a way to let others bruise DeSantis for him.”

On Thursday, The New York Times reported on a memo from the pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down, which called for DeSantis to go after Ramaswamy directly during the debate and defend Trump in the face of attacks from Christie.

The memo reportedly called for DeSantis to take a “sledgehammer” to Ramaswamy by calling him “Fake Vivek” or “Vivek the Fake.” The document also prepped DeSantis for what to do in the likely scenario that Christie launches an attack against Trump. Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) was also reportedly mentioned. 

The debate comes as other candidates have started to gain traction against DeSantis in public and internal polling. The New York Times reported that an internal poll seen in the memo showed Ramaswamy surging in New Hampshire. Meanwhile, an Emerson College Polling survey released earlier this week showed Christie neck and neck with DeSantis there.

Strategists note that the fight for second place is especially important in case Trump doesn’t end up on the ballot in the face of his mounting legal troubles. The former president is facing charges in two federal cases, as well as in state cases in New York and Georgia. 

The trial dates for the cases are still being hammered out and Trump’s campaign is full-steam ahead, but strategists say campaigns are fully aware that this is unchartered territory. 

“At this stage, I think the DeSantis campaign’s biggest concern is the rest of the field catching DeSantis because at this point, Trump is a runaway frontrunner but there are some permutations and combinations of things that can happen to him legally,” said Ford O’Connell, a Florida-based Republican strategist. “You want to be in the position where if Trump’s not the Republican nominee, you’re the Republican nominee.” 

DeSantis’s campaign maintains that the GOP primary is still a two-person race. 

“More money has been spent attacking Ron DeSantis than either the current or former president combined, and we fully expect the candidates at the debate to primarily come after Ron DeSantis because he is the greatest threat to every other Republican primary contender,” said DeSantis campaign press secretary Bryan Griffin. “This primary is a two-man race, but only Ron DeSantis can beat Joe Biden and implement the agenda we need to reverse this country’s decline and revive its future.”

The DeSantis campaign said Thursday that it was not aware of the memo. Legally, campaigns and super PACs cannot directly coordinate with each other. 

Eberhart, a DeSantis donor, echoed the campaign and argued the memo was not out of the ordinary.

“I don’t think there’s anything that unique about the advice in the memo…” Eberhart said. “It’s pretty standard advice to stick to your message and don’t get dragged into the mud by a bunch of tier-three challengers trying to get a second of airtime.” 

“The DeSantis team is concerned about every candidate in the field, as they should be,” he continued. “Trump may be in the lead right now, but Gov. DeSantis is clearly in second place and the candidate most likely to be the nominee. Everyone is going to be trying.”

Ramaswamy has seen a surge in name ID as well as growth in the polls, which was unthinkable prior to him jumping into the race earlier this year as a virtually unknown candidate. According to the Real Clear Politics polling average, DeSantis comes in second place at 14.8 percent, and Ramaswamy clocks in third at 6.9 percent. 

O’Connell said the memo was on the right track in targeting Ramaswamy, pointing to the fact that he hasn’t faced that many attacks since getting into the race. 

“Vivek is largely undefined,” O’Connell said. “A lot of people let Vivek say whatever he wanted and it’s sort of gaining a little traction and threatening Ron’s hold on the second-place narrative.”

“In all fairness to Vivek, I think he is the flavor of the moment and I think as more people learn about him, he may not make the jump,” he said. 

Scott, on the other hand, could also be a threat given his fundraising prowess and donor connections. DeSantis and Scott swiped at each other last month over the controversy surrounding Florida’s Black history standards. However, Scott has not gained a ton of traction in the polls. 

“Tim Scott is someone who could eventually be a concern down the road,” O’Connell said. “It’s really hard to attack Tim Scott so therefore you don’t want to attack Tim Scott until he starts to show signs of momentum.” 

Christie’s campaign has been described by many as a “kamikaze mission” to take out the former president in the primary. While he’s still far from being a top-tier candidate, the Emerson poll shows that he could have an impact on the race in the Granite State. 

“Chris Christie’s job is to dissuade people from voting for Trump,” O’Connell said. 

“You get a twofer with Chris Christie,” he said. “You whack Chris Christie because Chris Christie is the old Republican Party and without coming out and saying it, you’re actually defending Donald Trump, which puts you in the good graces of Trump voters. They’re trying to triangulate off of Christie.”

On Friday, the Times reported that Trump plans to skip Wednesday’s debate and sit down for an interview with conservative talk show host Tucker Carlson instead. An aide to the former president told The Hill that his campaign “hadn’t confirmed anything on our end” and cautioned against “getting too far ahead” in terms of Trump’s plans. 

Regardless of whether Trump shows or not, the debate is clearly a high-stakes moment for the Florida governor.

“It’s about making sure the rest of the field doesn’t catch you,” O’Connell said. “That’s kind of the mode you’re in if you’re DeSantis right now.”