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NH Republicans size up DeSantis, as he offers harsh rhetoric in primary campaign

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis campaigning in Rye
Josh Rogers
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis campaigning in Rye on Sunday, July 30, 2023.

Every Republican running for president not named Donald Trump has to hope they benefit from the former president’s latest criminal indictments. But no candidate may need the lift more than the one every poll shows in second place: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

DeSantis just wrapped up a three-day trip to New Hampshire, his first since downsizing his campaign due to financial problems. On the ground, it was clear the challenges he faces here remain significant, even as his chief rival confronts major legal problems. But on paper, Desantis’s path to winning the GOP nomination is clear, said Scott Maltzie, a Republican activist and DeSantis supporter from Concord.

“We’ve got to convince the soft Trump voters not to vote for Trump,” he said, after DeSantis spoke in Rochester Monday. “And we’ve got to convince the people currently supporting the others that they have no chance in hell.”

But how — and whether — team DeSantis can pull that off in New Hampshire is a big question. As he spoke to reporters in Rye on Sunday, DeSantis himself was quick to stress that plenty of voters here haven’t even begun to pay attention.

“Definitely after Labor Day, I think people are going to be dialing in a little bit more, and we are going to be here,” he said. “So you can take that to the bank.”

DeSantis’ campaign is banking on his capacity to appeal to staunch Republican voters on their core concerns. His record on issues like abortion — DeSantis signed a six-week state ban this year — and school choice, which is universal in Florida, align with many Republican voters’ views. On an array of issues he derides as “wokeism” — including diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives and transgender rights — the Florida governor lays down a hard line.

“We’re going to ensure the woke agenda ends up in the dustbin of history,” DeSantis said Sunday.

Throughout his trip to New Hampshire, he appeared bent on demonstrating that no candidate talks tougher. He promised that, under his presidency, Mexican drug cartels would be “shot stone cold dead,” and vowed that when it comes to federal bureaucrats, “we are going to start slitting throats on Day One.”

The crowd that listened to DeSantis at the Rye event, a barbeque, hosted by former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, was heavily Republican. And, by and large, DeSantis’ message went down fine. But not everyone liked the word choice, particularly the bit about slitting throats.

“If I was in charge of his PR, I would have said, ‘Don’t use that terminology,’ ” said Norm Olsen, a GOP primary voter from Portsmouth who describes himself as a “Sununu Republican.”

Olsen voted Libertarian in 2016 and 2020 to avoid supporting Trump, and he says he’ll do the same next year if Trump is again his party’s nominee. Olsen also has differences with DeSantis on some big issues, including abortion, but considers the Florida governor a serious candidate who could win his vote.

Ultimately, Olsen said he just wants a Republican candidate to block Trump’s path to the nomination — be it DeSantis, or someone else.

“Any one of these candidates so far on the Republican side who can beat Trump are likely to get my vote,” he said.

Betty Gay, who lives in Salem and turned out for several of DeSantis’ New Hampshire stops this week, makes a different calculation. She’s been a DeSantis fan since the COVID pandemic because of the way he fought lockdowns and mask mandates.

“Everybody was forced to wear masks,” she said Monday as she waited for DeSantis to speak about economic policy at a warehouse in Rochester. “Kids were forced to wear masks. I was really glad that’s a stance he takes.”

But Gay, smiling from under the brim of her pink cowboy hat, acknowledged her candidate’s current trajectory — flat in the polls, and reshuffling his campaign — isn’t positive.

“Well, I’m disappointed,” she said, “but I think if people listen to more of the issues, then . . . they may say, I guess he really is a good guy.”

But in the 2024 presidential primary, expect reaching consensus on what being a “good guy” means to remain a challenge.

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.
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