Speaking to hundreds of local Republicans in an open-air pavilion in Salem, New Hampshire, this week, Ron DeSantis made no explicit mention of Donald Trump.
But with thinly veiled attacks, the Florida governor offered a clear picture of how he intends to challenge the former president for the Republican party’s presidential nomination in 2024.
“I’m sorry, this is something that only a two-term president is going to be able to bring to fruition,” DeSantis told a standing-room only crowd of Republican voters at one of four stops in the crucial early voting state of New Hampshire on Thursday.
The 44-year-old governor was referring to the fact that, as a former president, Trump, 76, would be constitutionally limited to just one more term in the White House, while DeSantis would be able to serve two consecutive four-year terms.
“Anyone that says that they can slay the deep state in six months should be asked: Why didn’t you do that when you had four years to try to do that?” DeSantis added, in a barb at Trump’s claims that he could get the country “back on track” in a matter of months.
DeSantis’s tour of New Hampshire was part of a four-day blitz that included events in Iowa and South Carolina, as the governor seeks to jump-start his fledgling campaign in the key early voting states that will determine who is the Republican presidential nominee.
Analysts say DeSantis needs to claim the mantle as Trump’s heir apparent without alienating too many of the former president’s loyal supporters.
“He does have to thread a needle,” said Dante Scala, a political-science professor at the University of New Hampshire. “How do you get those Never Trumpers on board while still grabbing those conservative voters?”
When DeSantis launched his campaign last month he ended months of speculation and entered an increasingly crowded field of Republican presidential hopefuls. Nikki Haley, Trump’s ambassador to the UN, and Tim Scott, the Republican senator from South Carolina, have formed campaigns, while Chris Christie, the former Republican governor of New Jersey, and Mike Pence, Trump’s vice-president, are expected to get in the race next week.
DeSantis’s popularity skyrocketed last November, after he won re-election in Florida by nearly 20 points, while other Republican candidates across the country faltered in the midterm elections.
But DeSantis has slipped in opinion polls in recent months after a series of public mis-steps and as his increasingly hardline stance on social issues such as abortion has spooked deep-pocketed donors. At the same time, Trump has surged as his supporters rallied behind him in the face of several legal challenges.
The latest average of national opinion polls, compiled by Real Clear Politics, shows Trump enjoys the support of more than half of Republican grassroots voters, with DeSantis in a distant second place, on just over 22 points.
DeSantis nevertheless drew large crowds in his first appearances as a candidate in New Hampshire, with many former Trump voters saying they were ready to move on.
“I think we need some young blood and new ideas in Washington,” said Bernice Cooper, 58, who drove several hours to hear DeSantis speak at a community college in Manchester.
“[DeSantis] is my top pick right now — and I am a Trump supporter,” Cooper added. “I like that [DeSantis] is no nonsense. He is not just babbling. He has real ideas, real results.”
DeSantis’s stump speech leans heavily on his legislative achievements as governor of Florida. Clocking in at close to an hour, it can at times sound like a laundry list of wonky policies, such as the governor’s opposition to the idea of a central bank digital currency, or his enthusiasm for little-known epidemiologists who opposed Covid-19 lockdowns.
But DeSantis is also trying to convey a more human side to his candidacy. Critics have accused him of being too socially awkward and not investing enough in the “shaking hands and kissing babies” side of retail politics that voters in early primary states crave.
DeSantis started each event in New Hampshire by throwing branded campaign baseball caps into the crowd. He shared the stage with Casey DeSantis, his telegenic former TV reporter wife, who talked about family life with the couple’s three young children. At a veterans’ hall in Rochester, the governor got laughs from a mostly retiree crowd as he told a story about a middle-of-the-night search for chicken nuggets for his jet-lagged five-year-old.
The family anecdotes may help soften DeSantis’s image with voters who find him too brash — earlier in the day, the candidate barked, “Are you blind?” at a reporter who asked why he was not taking questions from voters. But strategists say the stories also draw a more subtle contrast with Trump, who is not only three decades older, but also thrice-married.
DeSantis’s speech includes other apparent digs at Trump, who was famous for his ostentatious business dealings and reality TV stardom before he ran for president.
DeSantis claims he could have “made a lot of money doing other things”, but gained more “satisfaction” by enlisting in the military before running for public office. And he repeats a rehearsed line: “At the end of the day, leadership is not about entertainment . . . it is ultimately about producing results for the people that you represent.”
But DeSantis and allies see his record at the ballot box as arguably his most effective weapon against Trump. The governor closed each speech in New Hampshire with an appeal for Republicans to “shake this culture of losing that has infected our party in recent years”, saying: “There is no substitute for victory.”
Many in the Republican establishment blame the former president for the party’s failings in last year’s midterms, when several of Trump’s handpicked candidates for the US Senate and other key offices lost their races.
It remains to be seen whether grassroots Republican voters share their concerns about electability. A Monmouth Poll out last week showed nearly half of Republican voters nationwide said Trump was “definitely” the strongest candidate to take on Joe Biden, the Democratic president.
In New Hampshire, however, several voters seemed receptive to DeSantis’s pitch.
“[Trump] already lost to Biden once,” said Fred Kohout, an 82-year-old two-time Trump voter from Hebron, New Hampshire, who attended DeSantis’s speech in Manchester with his wife, Barbara.
“He should have blown them out of the water, just like DeSantis did.”