Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) faces a transformative moment in this week’s second Republican presidential debate as he looks to boost his campaign amid falling poll numbers. surveys
A CNN/University of New Hampshire poll released last week showed the governor down 13 points in the critical early state, trailing candidates Vivek Ramaswamy, Nikki Haley and Chris Christie.
But a knockout performance in the debate could give DeSantis the much-needed boost in the polls that both Ramaswamy and Haley saw after their performance in the first debate last month.
“The pressure is on DeSantis to do really well because he’s falling in the polls and he’s falling fast,” said Ford O’Connell, a Florida-based Republican strategist.
“The narrative that this is a two-person race is gone,” he said. “This is a one-man race with Donald Trump dominating and leading the pack.”
Other Republicans say the debate is an opportunity for the governor as more GOP primary voters head to the race.
“Let’s not say it’s over yet,” said Matt Bartlett, a New Hampshire Republican strategist. “We’re out of Labor Day, we’ve gotten through the first debate, I think people are tuning in now. It’s an opportunity to turn the ship around. Yeah, expectations are high. What’s possible is narrowing and what’s probable becomes real as we enter a much more serious phase of campaigning.”
Trump will not attend the debate and will address striking autoworkers in Michigan in an attempt to counterschedule the event. The former president also skipped the first debate, opting instead to do an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
The move allowed the rest of the field to step into the limelight without being directly in Trump’s shadow. Many predicted DeSantis would be the primary target on stage, but instead, Ramaswamy and Haley got the biggest talking points post-debate.
“I thought for sure he was going to be under a lot more fire than he ended up being, but Vivek seemed to be able to attract that fire very well,” said New Hampshire state House Leader Jason Osborne (R ), which has been endorsed by DeSantis.
“If maybe Ron can do something similar, he just needs to be less dumb than Vivek,” he added.
Osborne said any debate topic on the economy will draw attention to the governor’s record.
“I think that’s where Ron really has a chance to dominate this stage with his record,” the New Hampshire Republican said. “I think that will give the other participants a chance to take a shot at him.”
The second debate comes as Trump continues to outshine others in the polls. Meanwhile, some other candidates, including Ramaswamy and Haley, have seen bumps in support.
But DeSantis’ supporters are pushing back against the narrative that it’s no longer a two-person race and that he’s been outdone.
“Trump is acting like the primary is over. It’s not. Perception is reality. Trump is looking more and more like the default winner of the GOP nomination. DeSantis needs to prove it’s not a done deal,” Dan said Eberhart, DeSantis donor.
DeSantis’ team has made Iowa’s first caucus state a priority, spending most of its time on the campaign trail in Iowa with the goal of reaching all 99 counties. The strategy is that DeSantis is hitting Trump in a state he lost in the 2016 GOP primary. The governor’s supporters argue that if Trump lost Iowa as the favorite and DeSantis won, the former president would not have the momentum needed to promote the rest of the primaries.
“DeSantis needs to make a big showing in Iowa,” Eberhart said. “That will set him up to win New Hampshire and keep winning until Super Tuesday. Even if he loses one of the contests other than Iowa, voters will start to change their ways and move away from Trump.”
In addition, DeSantis’ supporters have also pointed to Trump’s recent increased focus on Iowa as evidence that there is a sense of nervousness. The former president visited the state last week and plans to head there next month. Trump’s campaign also said more than 27,500 Iowa voters have signed pledge cards supporting him.
“The argument has always been that Trump can’t win the general. DeSantis has to prove that Trump can’t win the primary first,” Eberhart said. “A strong showing in next week’s debate could set the stage for DeSantis to win Iowa. But it’s not crucial.”
However, some of DeSantis’ supporters in New Hampshire express concern that he will not spend enough time in the Granite State.
“His team has chosen to focus on this hyper-right religious campaign in Iowa, and it’s really making a mess here in New Hampshire,” said one Republican who supported DeSantis.
Other DeSantis supporters argue that this has always been part of the campaign’s strategy.
“He’s stated that he understands that it’s going to be different in every state and that’s how we work,” said Kate Day, the former Cheshire County, N.H., Republican chairwoman and a DeSantis supporter. “We have 50 different states and 50 different cultures basically.”
The CNN/University New Hampshire poll showed DeSantis down 13 points from the last poll in July, giving DeSantis 10 percent support among likely Republican primary voters in New Hampshire. Ramaswamy had 13 percent support, while Haley and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) came in at 11 and 12 percent, respectively.
Osborne said his main finding from the poll was the candidates “encircling each other around the margin of error.”
“I wouldn’t expect anything else when all these other candidates are spending all their time and resources in New Hampshire, while the governor is running a full campaign focused on all the early states and looking ahead to really finish the campaign. the way to the end,” he said.
Day noted that there are still a number of undecided voters in the party’s primaries.
“There are a lot of people who are undecided right now and that’s why it’s so important for us to get it in front of a lot more people,” he said. “We have 60 to 70 percent of New Hampshire Republicans looking somewhere other than Trump.”
Day added that he would like to see more DeSantis in his state in the future.
“The people of New Hampshire want to see their candidate face to face,” he said.
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