DeSantis zeroes in on South Carolina to bolster campaign

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is focusing his energy on South Carolina as the clock ticks down for him to stop former President Trump from running away with the GOP nomination.

DeSantis spent much of his campaign focused on Iowa, which held its first-in-the-nation caucuses on Monday. But after intense campaigning and building up a significant infrastructure there, he was only able to come in a distant second place to Trump and just 2 points ahead of former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley for third.

Now, the Florida governor has his sights set on Haley’s home state, going on offense there to make up ground in the polls and validate his argument that he’s the best Trump alternative.

“South Carolina has the luxury of being first in the South and following behind New Hampshire and Iowa that usually generally clear the field and then South Carolina makes the ultimate decision [on the nominee],” said South Carolina Republican strategist Alex Stroman.

Candidates have spent months campaigning throughout the past year regularly making stops in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states to vote in the Republican nominating process. Success in these states is generally seen as among the best early indicators of a candidate having a chance at a party’s nomination.

But with the Iowa caucuses in the rearview mirror and the New Hampshire primary rapidly approaching on Tuesday, attention is already turning to the Palmetto State, which will hold its primary on Feb. 24.

Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to supporters during a caucus night party, Monday, Jan. 15, 2024, in West Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

DeSantis visited Iowa much more often than anywhere else for months and accomplished a goal of visiting all 99 counties. But he still lost to Trump in the caucuses by almost 30 points.

Meanwhile, his prospects in New Hampshire ahead of its primary have seemed to dim. Haley has been on the rise trying to close in on Trump there, while DeSantis is at less than 6 percent in The Hill/Decision Desk HQ polling average.

The governor signaled he was already looking beyond New Hampshire when a campaign official confirmed Wednesday that the campaign would shift most of its staff to South Carolina. DeSantis also traveled there right after the Iowa caucuses and will be back there this weekend.

Political experts all noted that the result of the South Carolina primary has been a stronger predictor of the eventual GOP nominee than either Iowa or New Hampshire.

Stroman said DeSantis deciding to look ahead to South Carolina is the right decision because he has a somewhat better chance of success there than in New Hampshire. Despite South Carolina being Haley’s home state, he said the state will not “reward a South Carolinian just for being from the state.”

But Stroman said DeSantis should have begun focusing his energy on South Carolina sooner.

“Ron DeSantis should have spent a lot more time in South Carolina instead of putting all of his eggs in the basket of Iowa. Many candidates have done that, and most that do that usually sinks,” he said, adding that a three-state strategy of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina is necessary.

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Following the reports of DeSantis turning his attention to South Carolina, he pushed back against the idea he was “skipping” New Hampshire, where he has been polling in clear third place. He said in an interview with Fox News on Thursday that he traveled to South Carolina after the Iowa caucuses because he had availability in the morning and wanted to use it.

“So we went to South Carolina, knocked out a couple events and then did what we were planning to do in New Hampshire. That was somehow caricatured as ‘skipping’ New Hampshire when it wasn’t. It was adding South Carolina in addition to that,” DeSantis said.

But Haley and Trump are holding multiple events in the Granite State this weekend while DeSantis stays south.

James Wallner, a lecturer in the political science department at Clemson University, said DeSantis is better suited to appeal to the type of voters more common in South Carolina. He said New Hampshire voters tend to be more secular and independent, moderate or libertarian.

“These are all character qualities that don’t really point in DeSantis’s direction,” Wallner said. “It doesn’t mean he can’t do well there, but you take those two things together, and it just makes sense to invest your scarce resources in places where you can do well if this is the narrative.”

DeSantis held a town hall in New Hampshire on Friday.

Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a campaign event at The Hangout on Saturday, Jan. 20, 2024, in Myrtle Beach, S.C. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard)

Wallner said DeSantis’s strategy of concentrating on Iowa could have still developed into a multi-state strategy, especially if he had won the state. He noted that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) won the Iowa caucuses in 2016 and was among the last candidates standing against Trump for the nomination.

DeSantis will have less time to work for South Carolina than he did in Iowa, but Wallner said if he can stay on the ground there, introduce himself to voters and come off as a reasonable person who cares about voters’ issues, he could improve his chances.

DeSantis is in third at just less than 10 percent in The Hill/Decision Desk HQ’s South Carolina polling average, trailing Trump, who’s at just above 50 percent, and Haley, who’s around 25 percent.

“While he may do poorly in New Hampshire, he could overperform in South Carolina, and that then keeps him alive heading into the other primaries that are to come,” Wallner said.

But South Carolina-based Republican strategist Chip Felkel said he would expect that if South Carolinians do not want to vote for Trump, they would support the state’s “favorite daughter,” Haley, in part depending on her viability as a candidate after New Hampshire.

Felkel said DeSantis and Haley are still essentially “playing for second” even as voting has gotten underway, with DeSantis still “parroting” Trump. He said DeSantis needs to “go for the jugular” on Trump and make him unacceptable as a nominee.

“He’s got to get on the airwaves. There’s a host of ammunition. There’s plenty of things to talk about,” he said. “Rule number one on taking on any incumbent, and that’s what Trump’s been treated like, is to make him unacceptable … but he’s been unwilling to do that.”

Felkel said South Carolina has been a “launching pad” for Republicans and Democrats, noting that President Biden’s major victory in the 2020 Democratic primaries helped him go on to win the nomination.

But only once in modern times did the winner of the South Carolina Republican primary not eventually win the nomination with Newt Gingrich in 2012.

Stroman said DeSantis has “some of the best hires” in South Carolina and racked up endorsements from numerous state legislators, but could face the same difficulties that he faced in Iowa.

“Had he won Iowa, I think he probably could have won South Carolina, but instead … South Carolina I don’t think is going to take a risk on Ron DeSantis over their daughter, Nikki Haley, or the former president,” he said.

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