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How he’s making a comeback against Donald Trump

How he’s making a comeback against Donald Trump

RYE, N.H.−Meeting and greeting voters at a barbecue in a rural hamlet, Ron DeSantis deployed his rebooted campaign Sunday by making familiar arguments about why he should be president – and throwing in a few jokes, as when he thanked New Hampshire-based police officers for providing security.

“If we recruit you to Florida, you get a $500 signing bonus right off the top,” DeSantis said as voters encouragingly chuckled. “We’re always looking for good people.”

As with a recent trip to Iowa, DeSantis used his New Hampshire trip to display an altered campaign style that includes a little more personality, a little less wonkery, more back-slapping and more running as a determined underdog to the front-running Donald Trump.

Beset by falling polls and defecting donors, DeSantis’ campaign reset also includes a smaller staff. He is also taking more questions from reporters and granting more television interviews.

Other Republicans, in New Hampshire and elsewhere, said DeSantis will need all the help he can get.

Trump appears to be growing his lead, despite two indictments and counting, while DeSantis is losing ground and seems to have trouble connecting with people.

“Every day, it’s harder for me to see how he turns this around,” said Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party.

DeSantis: ‘Telling our story’

When a voter at the barbecue asked how he planned to break Trump’s “stronghold” on the Republican Party, DeSantis disputed the premise and said he believes most voters have yet to make up their mind.

Standing on the back porch of a barn-like building, DeSantis said he would be a better general election candidate than Trump and he is more “reliable on policy” than the former president.

Before his remarks, DeSantis shook hands, patted shoulders, and took selfies with patrons at the barbecue. He also took questions in a town hall format that is a mainstay of New Hampshire politics.

DeSantis urged voters to ignore the “fake narratives” of the media and his opponents: “We’re going to be out there telling our story, and I’m confident that people will understand.”

Reconnecting after ‘a slow start’

New Hampshire Republicans who munched on hot dogs, hamburgers and watermelon slices said DeSantis did appear more relaxed during his town hall-style event. They also said he has plenty of time; the Iowa caucuses are Jan. 15, and the not-yet-formally-scheduled New Hampshire primary is expected to be Jan. 23.

“I think he was off to a slow start – hopefully he can come on strong now,” said Caryl Harvey, 61, a retired nurse and school “lunch lady” who lives in nearby Portsmouth.

Scott Brown, a former U.S. senator who is hosting a series of “No B.S. Backyard Barbeques” for Republican presidential candidates, said DeSantis is “connecting real well” with voters.

Brown, who moved to New Hampshire after serving in the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts, also noted that the 44-year-old DeSantis is making his first national race.

“It’s a challenge,” he said.

‘Granite State’

A recent New Hampshire survey gave DeSantis a little more hope. A mid-July “Granite State Poll” from the University of New Hampshire put Trump ahead by 37%-23%.

One of DeSantis’ challenges in New Hampshire is that his attacks on “woke culture” don’t go as far with the more economic-minded and libertarian Republicans of the state.

Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, said this is “a completely different electorate” than Iowa.

“You’ve got to know the electorate, who you’re talking to,” Smith said. “This is not Florida.”

As barbecue patrons baked under a hot sun, some said polls at this point are meaningless, no matter how big Trump’s lead.

“It’s way too early to be dependent on any kind of poll,” said Carolyn Lynch, 59, a retired school teacher from Rye. “I take all polls with a grain of salt.”

Katie Moriarty, 52, a stay-at-home mother from Rye, said there’s no reason for DeSantis to give up, not with so long to go.

“He’s going to continue to be himself,” she said. “If people don’t like it, so be it.”

Speaking with reporters after taking questions from the crowd, DeSantis said the ultimate winner will have to “earn it.”

“Nobody is entitled to this,” he said.

DeSantis reboots with ‘retail politics’

DeSantis is returning to the trail after his campaign dismissed more than a third of its staff and forged new strategies in response to supporters and donors who are increasingly anxious about him falling so far behind Trump.

In Iowa, New Hampshire, and other early primary states, DeSantis is trying to personally interact with more voters, the kind of “retail politics” that are essential because candidates have to spend so much time in these kinds of places.

The Florida governor is also seeking to draw more distinctions with the front-running Trump – policy distinctions, that is. DeSantis declines to go after Trump over his indictments and other legal problems, though some of his aides are starting to become more vocal.

In their morning email, the DeSantis campaign cited a Washington Post report that Trump spent more than $40 million on legal fees during the first half of 2023.

Trump has spent millions “falsely attacking Ron DeSantis,” while his “sole focus, by contrast, has been campaigning for this country’s future,” said DeSantis Communications Director Andrew Romeo.

While DeSantis appears to be increasing attacks against his top rival – he described Trump’s attacks on him as “juvenile insults” – he is still questioning the legal bases for the criminal cases facing Trump. In N.H., he said if Trump had truly “drained the swamp” of bad government, then he “wouldn’t be in the mess that he’s in right now,” implying the two indictments against Trump aren’t legally justified. 

Trump-DeSantis dispute

For his part, DeSantis said Trump failed to follow through on policies ranging from completion of the border to curbing the power of government bureaucracy.

DeSantis will stay in New Hampshire on Monday to give a speech on what he calls a “Declaration of Economic Independence.” He will also sit down for an interview with Fox News.

Trump and his allies say they will maintain their aggressive posture, especially given DeSantis’ new strategies. During a rally Saturday in Erie, Pa., Trump said DeSantis and “those other clowns” running against him should just drop out of the Republican race.

DeSantis lags behind Trump

DeSantis has a long way to go, if polls are to be believed.

Even while under indictment, Trump has built a lead of more than 30 percentage points over DeSantis, according to averages of polls compiled by the RealClearPolitics website. Trump is regularly over 50% in this survey, while DeSantis has often fallen below 20%.

In questioning whether an updated and friendlier approach can do the trick, some Republicans cited a number of recent incidents. They include more awkward exchanges with people on the trial and clumsy comments about how slaves developed job skills.

‘That’s probably a lot of sugar, huh?’

Cullen, who described himself as a “Never Trump Republican” who is looking for an alternative, cited DeSantis’ suggestion that as president he might “sick” Robert F. Kennedy Jr. – a Democrat and an anti-vaccination conspiracy theorist – on federal health agencies.

“Who is that designed to appeal to?” he said.

Former Rep. Will Hurd, R-Tex., who drew boos from an Iowa crowd when he said that Trump is only “running to stay out of prison,” went after DeSantis on Sunday over his counter-attacks on critics who decried language in a history curriculum about slavery and developing job skills. Hurd told NBC’s “Meet The Press” that “this is one more part of a fact pattern of Ron DeSantis being mean and hateful.”

Trump supporters and other opponents are jumping on DeSantis at every opportunity – like the Icee incident. While glad-handing at a county fair in Iowa, DeSantis told a child holding an Icee drink: “That’s probably a lot of sugar, huh?”

Retweeting the video, Trump senior adviser Jason Miller said: “The reboot isn’t working.”

DeSantis and aides said Trump is obviously worried because he spends so much time attacking the Florida governor. Some noted that, at his rally Saturday in Erie, Pa., the ex-president mentioned his rival’s name – mangling it as “DeSanctus” – more than 25 times.

An immediate goal: Stay in second

One of the top priorities of the DeSantis re-set is to stay in second place. One of Trump’s frequent taunts is that another candidate will soon pass DeSantis for the runner-up spot.

A recent poll out of Ohio Northern University put DeSantis at just 9%, three points behind businessman Vivek Ramaswamy (and 55 points behind Trump).

Nationally, DeSantis still seems a solid second. As of Sunday, the RealClearPolitics average of national polls had him at 18.4%, with Ramaswamy in third at 5.4%.

Trump’s average polling number is 52.4%.

DeSantis is seen as struggling even though he is among the most well-known candidates and voters “have had several months to give him a good look,” said Robert Alexander, founding director of Ohio Northern University’s Institute for Civics and Public Policy.

“Has he already had his shot?” Alexander said.

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