Former President Donald J. Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis are scheduled to hold dueling events Tuesday in New Hampshire, but from very different political positions: one as the dominant favorite in the state, the other still searching for his footing.
Strategists for both campaigns agree that the state will play a leading role in deciding who will lead the Republican Party in the 2024 election against President Biden.
Trump sees the first primary race in New Hampshire as an early opportunity to clear the crowded field of rivals. And members of Team DeSantis — some of whom watched from the lost bench as Trump tore through Granite State in 2016 on his way to the nomination — hope New Hampshire will be the primary that narrows the Republican field to two.
“Iowa cornfields used to be where campaigns were killed, and now New Hampshire is where campaigns go to die,” said Jeff Roe, who runs Mr. DeSantis’ super PAC, Never Back Down. Roe has agonizing memories of 2016, when he ran the presidential campaign for the last man to stand against Trump: Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
New Hampshire voters are known for being fickle and demanding, sometimes maddeningly. The joke is that when you ask a Granite Stater who he’s voting for, he says, “I don’t know, I’ve only met the candidate three times.”
Yet as of mid-2023, the state, more secular than Iowa and with a libertarian streak, seems frozen in place. Trump, now twice impeached and twice impeached, is not as dominant with the Republicans as he was in 2020, but he is stronger than he was in 2016, and his closest rival is far behind him.
In 2016, Trump won New Hampshire with a blunt, inflammatory message, fanning the flames about terrorist threats and doing none of the traditionally required retail politicking. But local operatives and officials believe that Trump, with his decades-long celebrity status, is the only politician who could get away with it.
“It’s definitely not going to be something that someone like Ron DeSantis can pull off,” said Jason Osborne, the New Hampshire House Majority Leader who endorsed the Florida governor for president. “He has to do the exercise like everyone else.”
Polls suggest there is an opening for an alternative to Trump. But to be that person, Mr. DeSantis has miles of ground to make up.
As recently as January, DeSantis led Trump in the state by a healthy margin, according to a University of New Hampshire poll. But Mr. DeSantis has waned considerably, with recent polls suggesting his support is in the teens and more than 25 percentage points behind Trump.
In a move that some saw as sinister, Never Back Down, the pro-DeSantis super PAC, went off the air in New Hampshire in mid-May and has not included the state in its latest bookings, which cover only Iowa and South Carolina.
DeSantis allies insist the measure was intended to manage resources in the Boston market, which they said was an expensive and inefficient way to reach primary voters. And they said that Mr. DeSantis would maintain an aggressive schedule in the state.
“We are confident the governor’s message will resonate with New Hampshire voters as he continues to visit the Granite State and detail his solutions to Joe Biden’s failures,” DeSantis spokesman Bryan Griffin said in a statement.
Still, much of DeSantis’s early moves appear to be directed at Iowa and its caucuses, which are dominated by more conservative activists, many of whom are evangelicals. By contrast, New Hampshire has an open primary that will allow independents, who tend to lean more moderately, to cast their ballots. And without a competitive Democratic primary in 2024, they could be a particularly sizeable part of the Republican primary vote.
Iowa is where Mr. DeSantis held his first event and where his super PAC has based his $100 million door knocking operation.
DeSantis’ signing of a six-week abortion ban is unlikely to prove popular in New Hampshire, where even the state’s Republican governor has described himself as “pro-choice.”
The clashing events of Trump and DeSantis this week have rattled the nerves of local officials. DeSantis’ decision to schedule a town hall in Hollis on Tuesday at the same time the influential New Hampshire Federation of Republican Women hosts Trump at its Lilac Luncheon has sparked backlash. The group’s events director, Christine Peters, said that “for a candidate to come and distract” from the group’s event was “unprecedented”.
Mr. DeSantis’ town hall will mark his fourth visit to New Hampshire this year and his second since announcing his campaign in May.
Mr. DeSantis collected vouchers in April when he helped the New Hampshire Republican Party raise a record sum at a fundraising dinner. And he has collected more than 50 endorsements from state representatives. But he has yet to answer questions from New Hampshire voters in a traditional setting.
During his last trip to the state, a four-stop tour on June 1, DeSantis snapped at a reporter who pressed him about why he hadn’t answered voter questions.
“What are you talking about?” said Mr. DeSantis. “You’re blind?”
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu said in an interview that there was “a lot of interest” in Mr. DeSantis from voters who had seen him on television but wanted to take a closer look.
“Can it hold up under our scrutiny?” said Mr. Sununu. “I think he personally will do quite well here,” he added, but “the biggest thing” on voters’ minds is “what will he be like when he knocks on my door?”
Indeed, New Hampshire voters will be subject to thousands of knocks on the door from DeSantis, but not from the man himself. He has outsourced his running game to Never Back Down, which is expected to have more than $200 million at its disposal. The group has already knocked on more than 75,000 doors in New Hampshire, according to a PAC superofficial, an extraordinary number at this point in the race.
But Mr. DeSantis still faces daunting challenges.
Trump remains popular with Republicans, and even more so after his accusations. And he is not taking the state for granted. Unlike in 2016, his operation has been hard at work in the state for months, with influential figures like former state Republican Party Chairman Stephen Stepanek working on Trump’s behalf.
Trump’s super PAC has blasted DeSantis with television ads citing his past support for a sales tax to replace the federal income tax, a message designed to taunt residents of the proudly anti-tax state.
Mr. DeSantis’ biggest problem is the size of the field. Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey, camped out in the state in 2016 and appeared to be making progress in consolidating part of the anti-Trump vote in recent polls.
Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy has been campaigning in the state for about 20 days now, according to his adviser Tricia McLaughlin. Former Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina is another frequent visitor. Both have events in the state on Tuesday. In addition, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott’s campaign has already spent about $2 million in New Hampshire.
If these candidates stay in the race until early next year, a repeat of 2016 may be inevitable. In a crowded field, Trump carried the state with more than 35 percent of the vote.
Meanwhile, DeSantis needs “a defining message that goes beyond the small base that he has,” said Tom Rath, a veteran of New Hampshire politics who has advised the presidential campaigns of Republican candidates including Mitt Romney and George W. .bush. “He needs to do real retail sales, and so far there’s no indication that he can.”
ruth igielnik contributed reporting.