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DeSantis shifts his campaign away from New Hampshire days before the state’s primary, AP sources say

HAMPTON, N.H. (AP) — Ron DeSantis has decided to shift his presidential campaign away from New Hampshire just six days before the state’s first-in-the-nation Republican primary while his leading super PAC executes another round of layoffs, moves that reflect the Florida governor’s rapidly shrinking path to the 2024 GOP nomination.

DeSantis won’t ignore the state completely over the coming days, but he’s reallocating the majority of his staff to South Carolina, the home state of rival Nikki Haley, with its primary in just over a month. That’s according to senior campaign officials who spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity to share internal discussions.

At the same time, the pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down has transferred several of its Iowa staffers to other early states, while laying off the rest. It’s unclear exactly how many people were laid off, although a super PAC official speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal strategy said those who lost their jobs would be paid through the end of January.

The strategic shifts by DeSantis’ operation underscore his weakness in the 2024 Republican nomination race after he finished a distant second to front-runner Donald Trump in Iowa’s caucuses Monday. DeSantis had made Iowa the centerpiece of his White House bid, yet Trump bested him by 30 percentage points there. Haley finished 2 percentage points behind DeSantis.

Trump appears to be tightening his grip on the GOP nomination, although he could be vulnerable in New Hampshire’s Jan. 23 primary. A CNN/University of New Hampshire poll conducted this month found that about 4 in 10 likely Republican primary voters in New Hampshire chose Trump, while about one-third picked Haley.

The former president set high expectations for himself in New Hampshire while speaking to reporters after a New York court appearance. He noted, however, that independents are permitted to vote in the New Hampshire primary, which makes the electorate there more moderate than Iowa’s.

“I think we’ll do there, maybe similar to what we did in Iowa,” Trump said of New Hampshire.

Trump had spent much of the day in a Manhattan courtroom, where a judge threatened to expel him from his civil trial for repeatedly ignoring warnings to keep quiet while writer E. Jean Carroll testified that he shattered her reputation after she accused him of sexual abuse. The jury already found that Trump sexually abused Carroll in the 1990s and then defamed her in 2022.

Trump was set to finish the day at a rally along New Hampshire’s coast.

DeSantis’ rivals seemed to enjoy the Florida governor’s struggles.

Trump spokesperson Steven Cheung said in response to the governor’s shift away from New Hampshire, “DeSantis is still running?”

Haley’s campaign greeted the news with a dig, too.

“South Carolina is a great state,” Haley spokesperson Olivia Perez-Cubas said in a statement to the AP. “We hope they enjoy their vacation time here.”

DeSantis super PAC officials, meanwhile, sought to project strength, even as they confirmed the new job cuts. Never Back Down has now gone through at least three significant rounds of job cuts, in addition to a leadership shakeup late last year.

“Never Back Down continues to host a slew of events on the ground for Gov. DeSantis in South Carolina, New Hampshire, and beyond aligned with our core mission of mobilizing grassroots field operations in those states,” Never Back Down CEO Scott Wagner said. “We’ve 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, the most effective conservative leader in the race, our next president.”

DeSantis was set to return to Florida later Wednesday before returning to New Hampshire on Friday and spending much of the weekend in South Carolina.

By shifting toward South Carolina, DeSantis’ team is trying to take advantage of Haley’s perceived weakness in her home state, where Trump appears to have a significant advantage over both of them. Yet DeSantis’ allies believe that Haley will be forced to drop out of the race altogether if she loses South Carolina’s Feb. 24 primary, giving DeSantis an opportunity to reemerge as a viable Trump alternative heading into the series of primary contests on March 5 known as Super Tuesday.

It’s a risky strategy at best.

Haley is campaigning in New Hampshire this week, although she left the state Tuesday night to visit her ailing father in South Carolina.

She’s also taking a cautious approach on the campaign trail.

The former South Carolina governor has been limiting questions from voters and reporters for several weeks. She declined to participate in either New Hampshire debate scheduled over the next week unless Trump agreed to be there. He did not, and both debates were canceled.

Meanwhile, DeSantis made no mention of the changes in his organization as he campaigned Wednesday in Hampton, a coastal town where the beach bars and souvenir shops were buried under piles of plowed snow.

Tom O’Keefe, a retired engineer from nearby Nottingham, said he was a past Trump voter but felt like the Florida governor or Haley, a former U.N. ambassador, might offer a better chance of beating Democratic President Joe Biden in November.

O’Keefe said DeSantis has not invested as much time in New Hampshire as he did in Iowa, which complicates his chances of winning here with less than a week to go.

“I wish he really could, but I don’t feel like he has it, and he doesn’t have much time,” O’Keefe said about DeSantis’ pulling off a New Hampshire upset. “I’m saying a prayer that he will.”

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Peoples reported from New York. Associated Press writer Michelle L. Price in Manchester, New Hampshire, and Meg Kinnard in Columbia, South Carolina, contributed to this report.

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