At his first town hall event in New Hampshire, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis spoke Tuesday about illegal immigration in Texas, crime in Chicago, the mess on the streets of San Francisco and the wonders of just about every aspect of Florida, a been in that mentioned about 80 times.
About an hour into the event, Mr. DeSantis finally got around to saying “New Hampshire.”
His relentless focus on Florida was welcomed at times in a state that will play a key role in deciding who will lead the Republican Party in the 2024 election against President Biden. Mr. DeSantis’s comments seemed to resonate especially when he connected his actions at home with issues of importance to New Hampshire residents, such as the flooding of fentanyl and other deadly drugs into his communities.
Still, his self-assured speech about his record as Florida’s governor left the clear impression that he thinks Republican voters need what he offers more than he’s interested in what he could learn from their questions.
“Every year I’ve been governor, we’ve reduced the assumptions in our pension fund,” he boasted, delving into the weeds of Florida politics. “In other words, you know, whatever it was when I walked in was more rosy. And we always scaled back to make sure that whatever happens, our pension system will be funded. I think we’re like the eighth best in the country with that.”
Even his jokes were Florida-centric, sometimes to the point of obscurity for the crowd of about 250 who packed a carpeted banquet hall in Hollis, just a few miles from the Massachusetts border. Audience reaction was muted when he joked about rising property prices in Naples, Florida, to point out that Chicagoans are fleeing downstate.
The main ideological skepticism in the hearing concerned DeSantis’s hardline stance against abortion, a position that is popular in strongly evangelical states like Iowa but less so in more secular New Hampshire.
Like several other Republican women present, Jayne Beaton, 65, of Amherst, NH, said she came with questions about the candidate’s position on abortion and the six-week ban he signed in Florida.
“I predict it’s going to be a problem for him,” he said. “With everything else” on her platform, she added, “I’m on board and excited, but less sure about abortion and the six-week ban.”
After receiving criticism in recent weeks for failing to answer voter questions at his rallies, DeSantis has held town hall-style events in South Carolina, Texas and now New Hampshire since Thursday. Although he has rarely been faced with difficult questions, he seems relatively comfortable in these impromptu moments, asking voters for their names, thanking military veterans for their service and occasionally cracking jokes.
Such casual interactions are especially important in New Hampshire, the nation’s first primary state whose residents are accustomed to scrutinizing presidential candidates over and over again in intimate settings.
“It’s a little different here than in any other state,” Jason Osborne, the New Hampshire House Republican Majority Leader who endorsed the Florida governor for president, said in a phone interview before Tuesday’s event. . “We’re so small, we’re first, so most of the candidates will touch the state than anyone else.”
Mr. DeSantis, who has a reputation for being a bit socially awkward, is working hard to overcome a deficit of about 30 percentage points at Granite State against former President Donald J. Trump, the Republican favorite. He spent more time answering voter questions at Hollis than at any event since he announced his candidacy in May.
The audience, which included many out-of-towners who had traveled hours to see Mr. DeSantis, seemed to appreciate his presence. Several told him they admired his handling of the coronavirus pandemic in Florida. In a state with many veterans, he too was thanked for his military service and received applause when he said he was the only veteran running in the Republican field.
Mr. DeSantis evaded just one question. A teenager invited him to condemn Trump’s efforts to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power on January 6, 2021. DeSantis refused to do so. All he said was that he didn’t “enjoy watching, you know, what happened” that day, but that he had nothing to do with it and that the Republicans needed to look ahead, not back, because if they stopped at the past, lose elections.
When finally asked about Florida’s six-week abortion ban, DeSantis seemed comfortable answering the question and, unlike Trump, made no effort to contort himself to appeal to more moderate voters. He said he believed that in America, “life is worth protecting,” and that it was important to provide services to support low-income and single mothers.
Doreen Monahan, 65, of Spofford, NH, who asked Mr. DeSantis about abortion and the burden that falls on taxpayers when women who cannot abort have unwanted children, later said her answer had been reassured, including his mentions. of reinforced adoption and postnatal care programs.
“It’s good that they have some options,” he said. “I have friends who waited years to adopt.”
She said she had contacted Mr. DeSantis’s campaign to inquire about exceptions to the six-week ban and felt more comfortable after hearing the details.
DeSantis made two main arguments against Trump, without naming him. The first was that change could not come to Washington if the Republicans kept losing elections. The second was his “no excuses” theme, a chance for Trump to renege on key promises of his, such as completing a wall along the southern border.
An older man told Mr. DeSantis that he had voted twice to “drain the swamp,” but it never happened. He wanted to know what Mr. DeSantis would do differently from Mr. Trump.
Mr. DeSantis opened his response by recalling how exciting it was in 2016 to hear the chants of “drain the swamp”. But then he fired two less-than-subtle shots at the former president.
Mr. DeSantis said that “the swamp” in Washington was worse now than ever and that to “crack the swamp,” a president must be disciplined and focused, and have the “humility” to understand that he cannot do it alone. The audience cheered as he vowed to fire Trump-appointed FBI director Christopher A. Wray and turn the Justice Department on its head.
Mr. DeSantis seemed more animated towards the end of the rally when a woman asked him about covid vaccinations. In response, the governor denounced the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration, calling their efforts to promote vaccines a “total disaster.” He also attacked big pharmaceutical companies and highlighted a study by the Florida Department of Health that purported to show elevated health risks for young men who took mRNA vaccines. but that was highly criticized by scientists..
“These Covid restrictions and mandates were not about your health,” DeSantis said. “It was about them controlling your behavior.”
The DeSantis campaign has been heavily inclined to criticize Trump’s handling of the pandemic, seeing widespread anger among Republicans over vaccinations, masking, school closures and social distancing measures as an opportunity to alienate voters from the former president.
The crowd responded approvingly to Mr. DeSantis’s eight-minute tirade against what it called “the medical swamp.”
Mark Pearson, a Republican state representative in New Hampshire who endorsed DeSantis, said in an interview this month that he had seen the governor become more confident as a retail politician.
In May, Pearson said, he told DeSantis that he needed to engage directly with New Hampshire voters.
“I told him, ‘This is what I suggest you do: you walk the rope line, you go into the restaurants, you go to the small places,’” he recounted. “‘But it better be real, Ron, because we can smell a fake from a mile away, because we’ve been doing this for a hundred years.'”