With a presidential launch imminent, Gov. Ron DeSantis’s attention should turn to blunting former President Donald Trump’s momentum and courting voters in the early states of the primaries that could make or break his chances of winning, veteran political strategists say.
DeSantis is expected to officially declare his candidacy next week with an event scheduled in his hometown of Dunedin, near Tampa, according to multiple media reports.
He has already been boosting his profile in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, early states on the Republican primary calendar, as a near-declared candidate.
DeSantis will have to overcome his reputation for indifference to stand out in Iowa and New Hampshire, where old-school, meet-and-greet politicking holds sway with voters, political analysts say.
DeSantis flipped burgers over the weekend at a picnic hosted by an Iowa state legislator. Never Back Down, a pro-DeSantis super PAC, touted the endorsement of 37 state legislators in Iowa and about 50 in New Hampshire. Never Back Down has staff working in Iowa and plans to have dozens of staff in the first 18 primary states in the coming weeks, The Associated Press reported.
Trump remains very popular among Iowa Republicans, but DeSantis has emerged as the leading alternative, said Dave Peterson, a political scientist at Iowa State University.
“I think it’s going to be very important for him to do well here, if not win here,” he said. “There is a sense of inevitability for Trump. that’s one of the things [DeSantis] has to overcome. You have to show that you can win. Iowa will be the first opportunity to do that.”
The next 60 days will be crucial for DeSantis as he seeks to define himself with voters and counter Trump, said John Thomas, a Texas-based political strategist who supports DeSantis.
“You have to go from zero to 100 mph the first day,” he said. “It should go straight for the jugular by highlighting the contrast between the two men. He needs to show that he is the new face of the Republican Party and that Trump is the past.”
Meanwhile, Trump supporters say the 44-year-old governor’s presidential announcement comes prematurely.
“The governor has a bright future, but the need for President Trump should outweigh any political ambitions as we work to restore America to greatness,” said state Sen. Joe Gruters, a Trump supporter from Sarasota. “President Trump has done the job before and will do it again on behalf of all Americans.”
Losing in Iowa does not mean ruin for the candidates. The last Republican presidential candidate to win the Iowa caucuses and then win the nomination in a contested election cycle was George W. Bush in 2000. US Senator Ted Cruz prevailed there in 2016 against Trump.
But getting a win or a better-than-expected performance can lead to a surge in enthusiasm. In 2008, Barack Obama benefited from an upset victory over Hillary Clinton in the Iowa caucuses, helping propel him to the White House.
Winning New Hampshire typically requires rallying voters in small groups and town halls, said Steve Duprey, a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, which endorsed Trump in 2016 and voted for President Joe Biden in 2020.
“I’ll tell you what New Hampshire voters are looking for,” he said. “New Hampshire voters first make a decision about whether you are authentic, whether you are staged or manipulated, whether you can actually talk to people and relate to them. They want a certain degree of sympathy. They don’t even have to agree with you on every issue. But they have to understand why you take the positions you do.”
Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley will be at home in one of the first states. New Hampshire’s Republican Gov. Chris Sununu is considering a run for the White House in 2024, which could shake up that race.
DeSantis faces the difficult decision of involving Trump directly and risk alienating his longtime supporters, said Gregory Koger, a political scientist at the University of Miami. For the most part, DeSantis has ignored Trump’s attacks.
“The announcement speech should probably be positive,” Koger said. “This is what I am. Here’s why I’m running. Soon after, he has to remove his gloves. Donald Trump has spent the last six months driving the negative ratings of Ron DeSantis among Republican primary voters. … There has to be a story about why he is better than the main alternative: the former president of the United States, Donald John Trump.”
Behind the scenes, the DeSantis team has been making moves to prepare for a presidential run. DeSantis has severed ties with the Friends of Ron DeSantis state political committee, a step he must take if he wants to try to use the $86 million in that account to run for president. That committee was renamed the Empower Parents PAC.
Nearly 100 state lawmakers in Florida, including House Speaker Paul Renner and Senate Speaker Kathleen Passidomo, have endorsed DeSantis for president.
He took to the road to promote his book, “The Courage to Be Free.” DeSantis is reportedly summoning key donors to Miami next week.
His political team recently moved from the Florida Republican Party building in Tallahassee to his own office across town.
Running for president essentially requires building what amounts to a corporation from the ground up, said Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist who worked on Obama campaigns and ran a super PAC for Biden in 2020.
One thing is certain, said Schale. It will mean long days and nights for campaign staff fueling themselves with caffeine, tacos and pizza.
Schale evaluated the location of the DeSantis team’s Tallahassee office based on the difficult task of young campaign staffers who work around the clock.
“They got two out of four things right,” he said. “They’re close to a brewery and Dunkin’ donuts, but they’re not close to a pizza place or a taco shop.”