DeSantis Campaign Struggles to Make a Strong Case Against Trump

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Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, looking to shift his run for president into a higher gear after an early series of missteps, spent the last two weeks rolling out an immigration policy and holding town halls with voters. But rather than correcting course, he stumbled again this week, raising questions about where his campaign is heading.

First, Mr. DeSantis’s team was forced to battle allegations, including from fellow Republicans, that it had shared a homophobic video on social media. Then, a top spokesman for the main super PAC supporting Mr. DeSantis acknowledged that former President Donald J. Trump was the race’s “runaway front-runner,” while Mr. DeSantis faced an “uphill battle.”

“Right now in national polling we are way behind, I’ll be the first to admit that,” the adviser, Steve Cortes, said in a livestream Twitter event on Sunday. It was an admission notably at odds with the confidence that the governor’s advisers usually project in public.

To top it off — in a visual representation of his recent troubles — Mr. DeSantis got soaked by a rainstorm as he marched in an Independence Day parade alongside several dozen supporters in New Hampshire — the crucial early nominating state where his super PAC, Never Back Down, stopped running television advertisements in mid-May.

Meanwhile, Mr. Trump hosted a rally in South Carolina that attracted thousands of people over the holiday weekend, a reminder of his enduring popularity with Republicans despite losing in 2020 and now facing at least two criminal trials.

The race is still in its early days, but Mr. DeSantis’s rough week highlights the challenges his underdog campaign faces as it seeks a coherent strategy to break through against Mr. Trump.

So far, Mr. DeSantis has tried to undermine his chief rival by subtly contrasting their ages, temperaments and records on issues like the coronavirus pandemic without saying anything too unkind about the former president, whom he almost never mentions by name. He has also attempted to move to the right of Mr. Trump on issues like abortion and L.G.B.T.Q. rights, at the same time as he argues that he is the Republican candidate best placed to attract swing voters and defeat President Biden.

But Mr. DeSantis, who has not shown that he is a natural campaigner, has failed to take off in the polls, and his carefully choreographed public events have offered few headline-generating moments, as his campaign, until recently, has worked to shield him from potentially awkward unscripted interactions with voters and the news media.

The wobbly launch of his presidential campaign makes for a stark contrast with the confident way Mr. DeSantis has governed Florida, where he silenced opposition within his own party and crushed Democrats at the polls during the midterm elections. It also has given hope to other primary candidates, several of whom have jumped into the race in recent weeks, that they can replace him as the party’s most plausible alternative to Mr. Trump.

“DeSantis’s argument is electability,” said Sarah Longwell, a Republican strategist who holds regular focus groups with G.O.P. voters. “But he is undermining the electability argument by running to Trump’s right. He is alienating college-educated, suburban voters who want to move past Trump,” as well as the independents he would need to beat Mr. Biden in a general election.

Ms. Longwell said Mr. DeSantis’s efforts to differentiate himself from Mr. Trump without directly criticizing him risked leaving the Florida governor without a natural constituency in the primaries.

“You cannot go around Trump,” she said. “You have to go through him.”

National polls show Mr. DeSantis trailing Mr. Trump by roughly 30 points — a gap that has widened significantly since Mr. DeSantis began traveling the country this spring to introduce himself to voters.

Yet Mr. DeSantis remains the leading challenger to the former president. He has shown fund-raising prowess, and Never Back Down is training an army of field organizers in early voting states. And in the dog days of summer, before a primary debate scheduled for August has even take place, it is far too early to predict how Iowans and New Hampshirites will vote next year.

Bryan Griffin, a spokesman for the DeSantis campaign, said in an email that Mr. DeSantis had been “underestimated” in every race he has won.

“This campaign is a marathon, not a sprint; we will be victorious,” Mr. Griffin wrote.

Mr. DeSantis has rolled out his campaign in deliberate phases, first with a series of speeches to introduce the candidate to audiences in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, then a round of town halls where Mr. DeSantis took questions directly from voters, and now gradual announcements of in-depth policy proposals, starting with immigration.

His campaign says it has focused its spending on field operations rather than on television advertising, a strategy that may not produce immediate polling bumps but will, his advisers argue, pay off when it comes time to vote.

There are precedents for Mr. DeSantis’s slow strategy. At this point in the 2016 cycle, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas was polling at under 10 percent in Iowa. But Mr. Cruz then went on to win the state, thanks in part to a well-drilled get-out-the-vote operation that Never Back Down is seeking to emulate. Mr. DeSantis’s campaign has so far heavily focused on winning Iowa, where polls last month showed him trailing Mr. Trump by roughly 20 points.

Mr. Cortes, the spokesman for Never Back Down, said his comments about the difficulties of running against Mr. Trump, first reported by Politico, were simply an acknowledgment of reality. But he added that he believed Mr. DeSantis could win.

“Taking on an incumbent or former president in the primary always represents a significant challenge,” Mr. Cortes, who worked on Mr. Trump’s campaigns in 2016 and 2020, said in an email. “I gladly embraced that reality in joining the team. All of us on Team DeSantis remain convinced that the governor has a strong path to the nomination, and the best chance of any Republican to defeat Biden in the general election.”

Mr. Trump, a gifted showman, is notorious for vacuuming up media coverage and attention, sucking away the oxygen from his rivals and trying to stifle their campaigns before they become larger threats.

Mr. DeSantis has also become known as a provocateur, successfully drawing criticism from liberals and using it to gin up support from his base. But a recent attempt that seemed devised to garner such attention — a video that condemned Mr. Trump for expressing support for L.G.B.T.Q. people — appeared to backfire over the weekend, leading to criticism not only from Democrats but also from other Republicans, including the largest group representing gay, lesbian and transgender conservatives.

The video, taken from another Twitter user and reposted by Mr. DeSantis’s rapid-response campaign account, relied heavily on obscure conservative memes.

Richard Barry, a former New Hampshire state lawmaker who attended a rainy Fourth of July breakfast visited by several presidential candidates, said he was eager to support someone other than Mr. Trump. But Mr. DeSantis has turned him off, he said, citing a criticism some voters have leveled against Mr. Trump — a sign that Mr. DeSantis is not yet differentiating himself from the former president in a meaningful way.

“He has a street kid attitude that says, ‘It is my way or the highway,’” Mr. Barry said of Mr. DeSantis. “He doesn’t listen to people.”

Jazmine Ulloa contributed reporting from Merrimack, N.H., Jonathan Swan contributed reporting from Washington and Maggie Haberman contributed reporting from New York.



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