DeSantis faces a bleak path ahead as he shifts resources to S.C.

Ron DeSantis is turning his sights to South Carolina, moving much of his presidential campaign staff there and assuring allies that he plans to stay in the Republican race for that late February contest after effectively surrendering in New Hampshire.

But the Florida governor’s path to the GOP nomination is bleaker than ever, with Donald Trump cracking 50 percent of the vote in Iowa this week and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley running ahead of DeSantis in her home state.

In New Hampshire, which votes next on Tuesday, DeSantis has become an afterthought, tumbling into the single-digits in public polls and expected to finish a distant third. Many Republicans have questioned the viability of DeSantis’s candidacy, anticipating a string of defeats in upcoming states.

“If he can’t beat Trump in Iowa, a state where he went all in, he’s not gonna beat him anywhere,” said Alex Conant, who oversaw communications for Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign. “Hope is not a strategy,” he said.

DeSantis’s pivot to South Carolina was another last-ditch reinvention for a campaign once seen as the biggest threat to Trump but that is now grasping for relevance. DeSantis aides say they can eventually win a one-on-one with Trump — and suggest that if Haley loses South Carolina on Feb. 24 that would embarrass her out of the primary. But DeSantis — not Haley — is facing the biggest doubts about his longevity in the race.

Not only is DeSantis is contending with a rival in Haley who has amassed growing donor support and is expected to do better than him in New Hampshire and South Carolina, he is also confronting a map with no obvious spots to turn the tide. GOP contests in Nevada and Michigan, set for February and early March, are likely to boost Trump with rules widely viewed as favorable to him. With a large share of delegates awarded on Super Tuesday on March 5, DeSantis would have little time after South Carolina to stop Trump’s momentum.

DeSantis averted disaster in Iowa this week when he notched a distant second, two percentage points ahead of Haley. But for a candidate who once predicted outright victory, the outcome in Iowa did nothing to dispel a sense of inevitability around Trump’s renomination. Haley has the best shot to challenge Trump with an upset in New Hampshire.

DeSantis’s stated commitment to staying in the race despite those obstacles has surprised some of his supporters who viewed Iowa — the first state in the GOP nominating calendar — as his campaign’s last stand. But the second-place finish also prevented Haley from claiming new momentum heading into New Hampshire’s primary on Tuesday.

It is common for struggling campaigns to signal their intent to brace for long, drawn-out contests, particularly after disappointments in the earliest states. It’s a way to try to head off an exodus of donors and chatter about dropping out. But in many cases, the campaigns do not ultimately make it as far as they claim they will.

Faced with Trump’s dominance out of the gate, some DeSantis allies are talking about the primary as a long-term battle for runner-up in a race that the former president’s indictments could still destabilize down the road. One of DeSantis’s precinct captains in Iowa urged him at an event this month to fight until the GOP convention “because the first person might be in jail.” And DeSantis now talks about marching toward winning a majority of delegates rather than winning states: “This is going to be a long slog,” he told a crowd Wednesday in New Hampshire.

How Trump dominated Iowa — and held back DeSantis and Haley

He plans to campaign in South Carolina this weekend rather than just focus on the Granite State in the lead-up to Tuesday. CBS News first reported the events in South Carolina and relocation of staff there.

DeSantis campaign manager James Uthmeier discussed the path forward at a morning finance meeting this week where he echoed the campaign’s public message about an emphasis on South Carolina, according to two donors in attendance. It’s more favorable territory for DeSantis than New Hampshire, where independents and moderate Republicans have boosted Haley, the campaign argues. His aides often tout that he has more legislative endorsements than Haley in the state.

Fundraising for further campaigning has only gotten harder for DeSantis following the Iowa result.

“It’s a pretty sober conversation in terms of how much more the campaign can raise in this environment,” said a third donor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the situation candidly. But the person said DeSantis can get to South Carolina without a new flood of cash, echoing others close to the campaign who said they heard the same from the DeSantis team.

It’s not clear how much money DeSantis has on hand. Conant, the former Rubio adviser, recounted going to Iowa prepared to buy his own ticket home if they performed poorly in 2016; the campaign spent everything it had to get a result that would generate more momentum.

“They shouldn’t have much money in the bank,” Conant said of the DeSantis operation.

DeSantis’s campaign suggested Haley is the one who should be worried. “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,” said campaign spokesman Andrew Romeo. A spokeswoman for Haley, Olivia Perez-Cubas, has said DeSantis’s team is “living in Disney’s Magic Kingdom.”

Unlike Haley, who touted a $24 million fundraising haul in the fourth quarter ahead of the Iowa caucuses, DeSantis has not released his fourth-quarter numbers. His campaign finished the third quarter, which ended Sept. 30, with about $5 million available for use in the primary and has said it raised millions afterward.

DeSantis launched with a massive war chest but lost some of his major donors as his struggles grew, and donors looking to move on from Trump have increasingly coalesced behind Haley, who is now outspending her rivals on television after launching with a small staff and budget. The campaigns have to file their financial reports for the fourth quarter at the end of month.

DeSantis’s operation started big and was repeatedly forced to downsize: The campaign laid off staff over the summer, while the super PAC doing field organizing scaled back its grand plans to door-knock in states well beyond the first few contests. An official with the super PAC, Never Back Down, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share internal moves, said on Wednesday that the group is “paring down” some staff, consultants and vendors following the Iowa caucuses, where DeSantis had poured most of his resources. Many members of the super PAC’s “war room” were let go, among others.

South Carolina door knockers who had temporarily shifted to Iowa are heading back, the official said, and some Iowa political staff have been transferred to New Hampshire and South Carolina; others will be paid through January. Door knocking is continuing in New Hampshire, other officials said.

George Andrews, who had been working as Never Back Down’s caucus precinct operations director in Iowa, wrote in a LinkedIn post that he had just learned that he was “a free agent due to budget cuts beyond my control.” Andrews identified himself online as a California state director for the super PAC. California was one of the states where Never Back Down nixed its canvassing last year; the state GOP changed its primary rules in a way that benefited Trump and reduced challengers’ chances to take some delegates.

Never Back Down CEO Scott Wagner said in a statement Wednesday that the super PAC has “mobilized several members of our robust Iowa team over to the other early primary states to help in these efforts and will continue working to help elect Gov. DeSantis.”

At a Never Back Down event in Derry, N.H. on Wednesday evening, DeSantis told reporters his goal in New Hampshire is simply to “pick up delegates.” He drew about 60 people to a winery, where some empty space had been cordoned off in the back — a contrast to his venues in Iowa, which were typically full.

In the audience was Eric Cooper, 30, from Londonderry, an enthusiastic DeSantis supporter who predicted that enough states could remove Trump from their ballots to make him unviable in a general election. The Supreme Court is considering the issue and many expect it to rule for Trump.

Heading into South Carolina and beyond, Cooper speculated, DeSantis and Haley will be in a race to accumulate delegates “to either gain momentum and win the nomination outright or be in pole position to win at the convention, when inevitably Trump gets convicted in what is a witch hunt.”

Marianne LeVine and Michael Scherer contributed to this report.

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