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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Can DeSantis break Trump’s hold on New Hampshire?


Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican presidential hopeful, campaigns in Hollis, N.H., on Tuesday, June 27, 2023. DeSantis and Donald Trump had dueling events scheduled on Tuesday in New Hampshire.


By JONATHAN SWAN, MAGGIE HABERMAN, TRIP GABRIEL and SHANE GOLDMACHER


Campaigning earlier thios week in New Hampshire, Donald Trump expressed such confidence in his consolidation of Republican voters that he said he might soon have to find another rival to attack besides Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida.


The former president, who is given to riffing aloud about his campaign strategy, said a strategist on his team had told him not to punch downward against Republicans polling below second place.


“‘Don’t attack third, fourth, fifth or sixth — worry about two’,” Trump said, quoting his adviser. Then, citing some polls showing his lead expanding since his federal indictment two weeks ago, Trump predicted that DeSantis would be overtaken by other rivals.


“Soon, I don’t think he’ll be in second place,” he said. “So I’ll be attacking somebody else.”


Trump appeared in Concord on Tuesday the same day that DeSantis campaigned in New Hampshire, with the party’s top two challengers holding vastly different political positions: one the dominant front-runner in the state, the other still seeking his footing.


Strategists for both campaigns agreed that the state will play a starring role in deciding who leads the Republican Party into the 2024 election against President Joe Biden.


Trump sees the first primary contest in New Hampshire as an early chance to clear the crowded field of rivals. And members of Team DeSantis — some of whom watched from losing sidelines, as Trump romped through the Granite State in 2016 on his way to the nomination — hope New Hampshire will be the primary that winnows the Republican field to two.


“Iowa’s cornfields used to be where campaigns were killed off, and now New Hampshire is where campaigns go to die,” said Jeff Roe, chief strategist of DeSantis’ super political action committee, Never Back Down. Roe retains agonizing memories from 2016, when he ran the presidential campaign of the last man standing against Trump: Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.


In an hourlong speech to a Republican women’s luncheon, Trump did not mention an audio recording that surfaced Monday of a conversation that figures in his indictment over mishandling classified documents. In the 2021 recording, Trump refers to what he calls a “highly confidential, secret” plan to attack Iran.


Avoiding any details of the indictment, Trump on Tuesday claimed he was being persecuted by “fake prosecutors,” and he boasted that afterward, “my numbers went up.” He pointed to a St. Anselm College survey released Tuesday showing him gaining 5 percentage points since a poll in March, while DeSantis slipped by 10 points. Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor and a caustic Trump critic since entering the race this month, was in third place, but still far behind Trump and DeSantis.


In an interview, Christie, a former federal prosecutor, said it was “absurd” that Trump had called his indictments “a badge of honor” because, as the former president said, “I’m being indicted for you.”


“How did this help the American people at all that he maintained the nation’s secrets at Mar-a-Lago unsecured for 18 months?” Christie said. “If anybody else in America did something like this, they would be laughed off the stage.”


New Hampshire’s voters are known for being fickle and choosy, sometimes infuriatingly so.


Yet midway through 2023, the state — more secular than Iowa and with a libertarian streak — appears frozen in place. Trump, now twice indicted and twice impeached, is nowhere near as dominant with Republicans as he was in 2020, but he is stronger than he was in 2016, and his closest challenger is well behind him.


In 2016, Trump won New Hampshire with a blunt and incendiary message, fanning flames about terrorist threats and without doing any of the retail politicking that’s traditionally required. But local operatives and officials believe that Trump, with his decadeslong celebrity status, is the only politician who could get away with this.


“It’s definitely not going to be something that someone like Ron DeSantis can pull off,” said Jason Osborne, the New Hampshire House majority leader who endorsed the Florida governor for president. “He’s got to do the drill just like everybody else.”


Polls suggest there is an opening for a Trump alternative. But to be that person, DeSantis has miles of ground to make up. On Tuesday in Hollis, New Hampshire, DeSantis made his pitch at a town-hall event, focusing largely on his record in Florida to a mostly receptive crowd.


As recently as January, DeSantis was leading Trump in the state by a healthy margin, according to a poll by the University of New Hampshire. But DeSantis has slipped considerably, with recent polling that suggests his support is in the teens and more than 25 percentage points behind Trump.


In a move that some saw as ominous, Never Back Down, the pro-DeSantis super PAC, went off the airwaves in New Hampshire in mid-May and has not included the state in its latest bookings, which cover only Iowa and South Carolina.


DeSantis allies insist the move was intended to husband resources in the Boston market, which they said was an expensive and inefficient way to reach primary voters. And they said DeSantis would maintain an aggressive schedule in the state.


“We are confident that the governor’s message will resonate with voters in New Hampshire as he continues to visit the Granite State and detail his solutions to Joe Biden’s failures,” Bryan Griffin, a spokesperson for DeSantis, said in a statement.


Still, so much of DeSantis’ early moves seem aimed at Iowa and its caucuses that are dominated by the most conservative activists, many of whom are evangelical. In contrast, New Hampshire has an open primary that will allow independents, who tend to skew more moderate, to cast ballots. And without a competitive Democratic primary in 2024 they could be a particularly sizable share of the GOP primary vote.


Iowa is where DeSantis held his first event and where his super PAC has based its $100 million door-knocking operation.


DeSantis’ signing of a six-week abortion ban is unlikely to prove popular in New Hampshire, where even the state’s Republican governor, Chris Sununu, has described himself as “pro-choice.”


Sununu said in an interview that there was “a lot of interest” in DeSantis from voters who had seen him on television but wanted to vet him up close.


“Can he hold up under our scrutiny?” Sununu said. “I think he’s personally going to do pretty well here,” he added, but “the biggest thing” on voters’ minds is “what’s he going to be like when he knocks on my door.”


New Hampshire’s voters will indeed be subjected to thousands of DeSantis door-knocks — but not from the man himself. He has outsourced his ground game to Never Back Down, which is expected to have more than $200 million at its disposal. The group has already knocked on more than 75,000 doors in New Hampshire, according to a super PAC official, an extraordinary figure this early in the race.


But DeSantis still faces daunting challenges.


Trump remains popular among Republicans, and even more so after his indictments. And he is not taking the state for granted. Unlike in 2016, his operation has been hard at work in the state for months, with influential figures like former Republican state party chair Stephen Stepanek working on Trump’s behalf.


DeSantis’ biggest problem is the size of the field. If the major candidates stay in the race through early next year, a repeat of 2016 may be inevitable. In a crowded field, Trump won the state with more than 35% of the vote.


In the meantime, DeSantis needs “a defining message that gets beyond the small base he has,” said Tom Rath, a veteran of New Hampshire politics who has advised the presidential campaigns of Republican nominees including Mitt Romney and George W. Bush. “He needs to do real retail, and so far there is no indication that he can do that.”

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