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Struggling DeSantis sets sights on South Carolina, bypassing New Hampshire

By James Oliphant and Gram Slattery

BRETTON WOODS, New Hampshire (Reuters) - Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is all but abandoning New Hampshire's Republican presidential primary next week and instead is relocating staff and focusing on South Carolina, where he hopes to pressure rival Nikki Haley in her home state.

The decision highlights the extent to which the DeSantis campaign is scrambling to reset after its big bet on winning Iowa failed to pay off. DeSantis came in a distant second to former President Donald Trump in Monday's Iowa caucuses, the first Republican presidential nominating contest.

Although DeSantis faces exceptionally tough odds in New Hampshire, there is no obvious road for a comeback anywhere else, including in South Carolina, where polls put him at a distant third.

DeSantis and Haley are battling to emerge as the top alternative to Trump, the runaway frontrunner for the Republican nomination.

The DeSantis campaign now appears to be vying to edge Haley out of the race after South Carolina, a state where she was governor and where the primary will be held on Feb. 24.

"When Nikki Haley fails to win her home state, she'll be finished and this will be a two-person race," a senior DeSantis campaign official told Reuters on Wednesday, confirming the report.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, would not say whether DeSantis would return to New Hampshire, but the candidate has scheduled South Carolina events over the weekend.

Trump is ahead of both DeSantis and Haley by a wide margin in South Carolina, with polling averages showing him with nearly 55% support, compared with Haley at almost 25% and DeSantis at 12%.

After his disappointing finish in Iowa on Monday night, DeSantis flew directly to South Carolina, rather than going straight to New Hampshire, as is tradition.

Only about 6% of New Hampshire residents plan to vote for DeSantis, according to polling averages, versus about 30% for Haley and 43% for Trump. Some recent polls have shown Haley and Trump in a much closer battle.

In Greenville, South Carolina, on Tuesday, DeSantis criticized Haley at a campaign stop.

"She was governor here for six years. Can you name major achievements under her tenure?" he said. "I mean, tell me if there are, because she hasn't been able to do it."

Asked for a response, Haley's campaign said, "South Carolina is a great state. We hope they enjoy their vacation time here."

Never Back Down, a pro-DeSantis fundraising super PAC that has played a major role in his campaign, has transferred several Iowa political staff to other early nominating states and has laid off other staffers.

(Reporting by James Oliphant and Gram Slattery; writing by Alexandra Ulmer; editing by Ross Colvin and Jonathan Oatis)