DERRY, N.H. — His presidential campaign all but left for dead in frozen Iowa, Ron DeSantis rolled through his stump speech at a winery outside Manchester on a cold Wednesday evening, ticking off his bona fides before a crowd of a few dozen voters preparing to vote in a primary he has virtually no shot to win.
His campaign had just signaled a shift in focus to South Carolina, a state that — like New Hampshire and every other early-voting state — strongly favors former President Donald Trump. But he says he’s in it for the long haul and every delegate matters.
His supporters nod, clapping at times. They admire his grit but don’t necessarily share his optimism.
Can he win the Republican nomination?
“Probably not,” says Justin McEwen, 51, who plans to vote for Florida’s governor anyway on Tuesday.
Though his campaign has been largely written off, DeSantis is trudging onward, attempting to scrape whatever delegates he can out of New Hampshire while convincing Republican voters and donors that he can still be the last candidate standing against Trump — and that it would even matter.
He says the Republican Party is ready to move on from the former president, though polls and the first contest of the primary season strongly suggest it is not. And he says he is still the candidate to coalesce the non-Trump vote, though his plan hinges on South Carolina voters on Feb. 24 embarrassing Nikki Haley, the former United Nations ambassador whom voters there elected twice as governor.
As good fortune would have it, the primary in Florida — where polls have shown DeSantis is down roughly 40 points — isn’t until March 19.
“I think that we deserve a choice going forward; a one-on-one choice,” DeSantis said from a stage at LaBelle Winery, a popular venue for New England weddings. “As we get out of these early states, I think that’s what we’re going to end up seeing.”
The reality is that, if DeSantis is competing for anything right now in the Republican primary, it’s second place. His supporters here wonder when he’ll drop out, not if.
“I would imagine he goes until at least Super Tuesday or as long as the donors want to back him,” said New Hampshire House Majority Leader Jason Osborne, who endorsed DeSantis back in May, when plenty of people thought maybe he had a shot to overtake Trump. “I don’t know what the fundraising is like right now, but when the support dries up, he’ll have to call it quits.”
DeSantis is still projecting optimism, despite the difficult circumstances, and finding silver linings to seize on. Trump won a majority of the vote in Iowa, but DeSantis says almost half of the voters wanted someone else. And while DeSantis may not have much of a shot to win New Hampshire’s primary, if there’s a competition for the candidate who can field the most questions from voters in the “Live Free or Die” state, he may be the front-runner.
After wrapping up his stump speech on Wednesday, he held a Q&A with several voters before waving off a staffer who announced that a fourth question would be the governor’s last.
“No, no, I’m going to do some more,” DeSantis said, drawing a laugh from his audience. “How many is that? Like, four or five? I gotta do more than that. That’ll equal the number that Haley and Trump do in a month.”
In the audience, McEwen, who before retiring was a Navy lawyer, like DeSantis, said he liked what he saw from Florida’s governor. But while he was confident that DeSantis could beat President Joe Biden in a general election matchup, getting through the primary seemed a stretch.
“If you’re talking about beating Trump, I think it’s not going to happen,” said McEwen, who lives in Bedford. “But you never know.”
The path forward?
Trump is facing a unique set of challenges. The U.S. Supreme Court might rule that states like Colorado and Maine can keep him off the November ballot. Any of the dozens of criminal charges against the former president might stick in a way that changes the game. Age might catch up with Trump: he will be 78 in June.
Despite skepticism, DeSantis’ campaign says it has the money to last at least through Super Tuesday on March 5, when voters in 16 states will vote on the Republican presidential candidates. His campaign says Haley will run out of gas once she loses in South Carolina.
“The Wall Street spigot will run out on February 24 — if not sooner — because no one will be funding a bubble wrapped candidate who can’t win her home state, creating a two-person race between Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump,” Andrew Romeo, the communications director for DeSantis’ campaign, said.
In Tallahassee, where DeSantis turned the state Capitol into a stepping stone for his presidential ambitions, some of his staunchest supporters say he’s not done yet. Reducing his footprint in New Hampshire was a business decision, they say.
“I don’t know whether he beats Trump or not, but in the battle for second and to make that a two-person race, I think South Carolina is an important state,” Florida House Speaker Paul Renner told reporters Thursday from the Florida Capitol.
DeSantis’ presence has been noticeably light during the early days of the ongoing legislative session, though he quietly slipped back to Tallahassee on Thursday between campaign events in New Hampshire. In past years, he has been front and center, using the state’s annual legislative session to push a conservative agenda built off his “war on woke.” This year, his eyes have been on early primary states.
“I think the governor doesn’t have a path forward,” said Florida state Rep. Juan Porras, a Miami-area Republican who is backing Trump’s presidential bid. “I can’t imagine him winning any state moving up to Super Tuesday. And if you ask me, I don’t think he is going to win on Super Tuesday either.”
Porras’ view is widely held at this point.
“It’s hard to see a path forward for him; he’s hanging on by his fingernails,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster who worked on DeSantis’ 2018 campaign for Florida governor. “He misunderstood the electorate, he made a bunch of rookie mistakes. It’s almost been a comedy of errors, and it’s hard to see where he goes now.”
“Not the right moment”
DeSantis has shown some evidence that he is attempting to address criticisms that have dogged his campaign. In a radio interview Thursday, he said he made a mistake by not doing more interviews with “corporate” media, which he has cast as a malignant force in America. In a CNN town hall for New Hampshire voters, DeSantis, who near the peak of his political popularity last February said he’d left the Florida Democratic Party a “dead, rotten carcass on the side of the road,” expressed a desire to help return civility to political discourse.
At an event for Haley in Hollis on Thursday, Danya Bell, 51, of Nashua, said she considered voting for DeSantis, but is now leaning toward Haley in the Tuesday primary. She said that while she hasn’t seen DeSantis campaign in person, her husband has, and she’s “not sure it’s his time” to run.
“I’ve talked to friends in Florida, and it just seems like it’s just not the right moment for him,” said Bell, who attended a town hall hosted by Haley in Hollis on Thursday.
DeSantis, despite his pivot to prioritize other states, was expected back in New Hampshire on Friday. He planned to visit South Carolina again on Saturday and return to New Hampshire on Sunday ahead of Tuesday’s vote.
As he wrapped up his remarks in Derry on Wednesday evening, DeSantis acknowledged Trump’s vise-like grip over Republican voters and the primary process. But if only the field of candidates would narrow, he said, he would have a real shot at taking down the former president.
“You gotta win Republican voters who want to see the values that we stand for,” DeSantis said. “I’m the only one that can compete with Donald Trump with those voters.”
Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau reporter Ana Ceballos contributed to this report.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misattributed a quote to Whit Ayres, which has been removed from the story.
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