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‘Big comedown’ as DeSantis abandons New Hampshire

“It’s a big comedown for somebody who a year ago looked like he was going to be the one to take on Trump,” said Jon McHenry, a vice president at North Star Opinion Research Group whose firm worked on DeSantis’ 2018 gubernatorial campaign.

“That’s the sort of thing a campaign does when they say, ‘We are going to get destroyed here so let’s act like we didn’t contest the state,’” he added.

DeSantis’ brand of culture-war conservatism was never a natural fit for New Hampshire, where more moderate-skewing independents who make up the largest share of the state’s voters are poised to play a major role in the GOP primary.

While he attracted early interest from conservative Republican activists in the state and beat Trump in a single survey here around this time last year, his poll numbers were already slipping by the time he launched his campaign in May and have now bottomed out in the single digits.

A
Suffolk University/Boston Globe/NBC10 Boston survey released Wednesday showed DeSantis with just 5 percent support, compared to 34 percent for Haley and 50 percent for Trump. A
Saint Anselm poll also released Wednesday put DeSantis at 6 percent support — the same number he’s been stuck in the college’s surveys since mid-December.

Slater Bayliss, who is on the DeSantis campaign’s finance committee, said the dynamics of the contest in New Hampshire changed when former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie dropped out because his more centrist supporters are mainly gravitating toward Haley. In contrast, the DeSantis campaign views Haley, who was U.N. ambassador under Trump, as vulnerable in her home state.

“DeSantis’ military service and environmental record should resonate very well,” with South Carolina voters, Bayliss said, referring to DeSantis’ service in the Navy and his pro-conservation record in Florida.

DeSantis has attacked Haley over rejecting an anti-transgender “bathroom bill” and luring Chinese companies to South Carolina when she was governor. He also has cast her as a pro-corporate liberal who capitulates to donors.

But
polling shows DeSantis is a distant third in South Carolina, and he has only about a month to close the gap before the Feb. 24 GOP primary.

The announcement about DeSantis’ South Carolina plans was first
shared exclusively with CBS News and came after networks announced there would be no New Hampshire debates — nixed after Haley said she wouldn’t participate without Trump. The DeSantis campaign is putting pressure on Haley to perform well in her home state — maintaining that she should drop out if she doesn’t.

“When Nikki Haley fails to win her home state, she’ll be finished and this will be a two-person race … We’re wasting no time in taking the fight directly to Haley on her home turf,” DeSantis campaign spokesperson Andrew Romeo said in an email update circulated to reporters.

The campaign hasn’t said how much cash it has left on hand, and the deadline to publicly file donations isn’t until Jan. 31. The governor isn’t completely ignoring New Hampshire and plans to return on Friday for multiple events and possibly Sunday.

One DeSantis fundraiser, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly about the strategy, said they initially thought DeSantis should have left the race after Iowa to salvage the relationship with Trump. But the fundraiser also understood the logic of the South Carolina approach, calling it either a “Hail Mary” to knock Haley down in her home state and turn the primary into a two-person race against Trump or a “last dance.”

“The reason to stay in is to outlast Haley — and I’m sure that’s probably the logic, that he doesn’t want to get out before she does,” the person said. “Whoever is perceived as staying in the longest will be perceived as the first in line for four years from now.”

But pouring resources into South Carolina, as DeSantis did in Iowa, also raises the stakes for DeSantis to perform well there. During the 2016 cycle, Trump dominated the state in the primary and
voters sent a clear message to another Republican Florida governor, Jeb Bush, that they weren’t interested in him.

“If they don’t win South Carolina it’s over,” McHenry said.

Jason Osborne, a prominent DeSantis supporter in New Hampshire and the state House Republican leader, argued that there is “a lot of opportunity available here” for the Florida governor with Christie and Vivek Ramaswamy newly out of the race.

“Conventional wisdom says that Christie supporters go to Nikki Haley,” Osborne said. But “why would you expect the people who were with the guy attacking Trump to all of a sudden go with the lady who’s carrying Trump’s water?”

But even among New Hampshire voters considering casting ballots for DeSantis in Tuesday’s primary, there was a universal acknowledgement that his prospects in New Hampshire are almost nonexistent.

News of DeSantis’ pending departure from New Hampshire was already circulating as he took the stage at a music venue on the Seacoast alongside former colleagues Reps. Chip Roy (R-Tex.) and Thomas Massie (R-Ky.). But the governor didn’t mention it.

And voters largely shrugged it off.

Eric Gittings, an East Kingston Republican, said he was so impressed with DeSantis’ energy on the stump that he was going to go home and take the Haley campaign sign off his front lawn whether the Floridian stayed to campaign for his vote or not.

Robert Loree, an independent voter from Danville, recalled how now-President Joe Biden slunk out of New Hampshire before polls had closed on primary day here four years ago.

“That worked out for him,” Lorre said. “I mean, they gotta think strategically — giving up on New Hampshire because they’re not going to win here anyway.”

Of course, Loree, who met DeSantis backstage and said he was “blown away” by the governor, is part of DeSantis’ math problem here.

“I like DeSantis,” Lorre said. “But I will probably vote for Trump.”

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