Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is facing a make-or-break moment in this week’s second Republican presidential debate, as he looks to give his campaign a boost amid falling poll numbers.
A CNN/University of New Hampshire poll released last week showed the governor dropping 13 points in the critical early state, falling behind candidates Vivek Ramaswamy, Nikki Haley and Chris Christie.
But a knockout performance at the debate could give DeSantis the much-needed boost in the polls that both Ramaswamy and Haley saw after their performance at the first debate last month.
“The pressure is on DeSantis to do really well because of the fact he is slipping in the polls and he is slipping 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-person 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 turn their attention to the race.
“Let’s not say that it’s over yet,” said Matt Bartlett, a New Hampshire Republican strategist. “We’re just past Labor Day, we got through the first debate, I think people are tuning in now. It’s an opportunity to turn the ship around. Yes, the expectations are high. What is possible shrinks and what is probable becomes real as we enter into a much more serious campaign phase.”
Trump will not attend the debate and will instead address striking auto workers in Michigan in an effort to counter-program the event. The former president also skipped the first debate, instead opting to do a sit-down interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
The move allowed the rest of the field to soak up the limelight without being directly in Trump’s shadow. Many predicted DeSantis would be the top target on stage, but instead, Ramaswamy and Haley garnered the most post-debate chatter.
“I thought for sure going into it that he would be under a lot more fire than he ended up being, but Vivek seemed to be able to draw that fire really well,” said New Hampshire state House leader Jason Osborne (R), who has endorsed DeSantis.
“If Ron maybe can do something similar, he only needs to be less of a jerk about it than Vivek was,” 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 that stage with his record,” the New Hampshire Republican said. “I think that will give the opportunity for the other participants to fire away at him.”
The second debate comes as Trump continues to eclipse the others in polling. Meanwhile, some other candidates, including Ramaswamy and Haley, have seen bumps in support.
But DeSantis supporters are firmly pushing back against the narrative that it’s no longer a two-person race and that he’s been surpassed.
“Trump is acting as if the primary is over. It’s not. Perception is reality. Trump is increasingly looking like the default winner of the GOP nomination. DeSantis has to demonstrate that isn’t a done deal,” said Dan Eberhart, a DeSantis donor.
DeSantis’s team has made the first caucus state of Iowa a priority, spending the majority of his time on the campaign trail in Iowa with the goal of hitting 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 were to lose Iowa as the front-runner and DeSantis were to win, the former president would lack the momentum needed to steamroll the rest of the primary.
“DeSantis needs to put in a strong showing in Iowa,” Eberhart said. “That will set him up to win New Hampshire and keep winning going into Super Tuesday. Even if he loses one of the contests other than Iowa, voters will start to swing his way and move away from Trump.”
Additionally, DeSantis supporters have also pointed to Trump’s recently increased attention to Iowa as evidence there is a sense of nervousness there. The former president visited the state last week and has plans to head there next month. The Trump campaign also said that more than 27,500 Iowa voters have signed pledge cards supporting him.
“The pitch has always been that Trump can’t win the general. DeSantis needs to show 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’s supporters in New Hampshire are voicing concerns he’s not spending enough time in the Granite State.
“His team has chosen to focus on this hyper-right-wing, religious campaign in Iowa, and it’s really causing him to shit the bed here in New Hampshire,” said one Republican supporting DeSantis.
Other DeSantis supporters maintain that this has always been a part of the campaign’s strategy.
“He has 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 chairwoman of the Cheshire County, N.H., Republicans and a DeSantis supporter. “We have 50 different states and 50 different cultures basically.”
The CNN/University New Hampshire poll showed DeSantis dropping 13 points since the last survey in July, landing DeSantis at 10 percent support among likely New Hampshire GOP primary voters. Ramaswamy clocked in at 13 percent support, while Haley and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) came in at 11 and 12 percent, respectively.
Osborne said his biggest takeaway from the poll was candidates “circling each other around the margin of error.”
“I wouldn’t expect anything else when you have all of those other candidates spending all of their time and resources into New Hampshire whereas the governor is running a full campaign focusing on all of the early states and looking ahead toward actually finishing the campaign all the way to the end,” he said.
Day pointed to there still being a number of undecided voters in the party’s primary.
“There are a lot of people who are undecided right now and that’s why it’s so important for us to get him in front of a lot more people,” she said. “We have somewhere between 60 and 70 percent of New Hampshire Republicans that are looking elsewhere besides Trump.”
Day added that she would like to see more of DeSantis in her state in the future.
“People in New Hampshire want to see their candidate face to face,” she said.