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Sununu lends a hand as Florida governor DeSantis seeks traction in New Hampshire

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Gov. Chris Sununu campaign in Londonderry
Josh Rogers
/
NHPR
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Gov. Chris Sununu campaigned in Londonderry, Oct. 24, 2023.

When Gov. Chris Sununu decided against mounting his own longshot presidential run earlier this year, he promised to stay involved in his party’s nominating process.

He presented himself as a kind of Granite State ambassador: helping other Republican candidates make the rounds in New Hampshire, offering tips on the best ways to reach local voters. That journey would reach its climax, Sununu said, with him ultimately throwing his weight behind the candidate he sees as best able to defeat Donald Trump.

“What I’ve been trying to do is allow every candidate to be the best version of themselves, talking to people one on one, person to person, town by town,” Sununu said as he and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis worked the room at a busy Londonderry diner Tuesday morning.

Sununu hasn’t endorsed DeSantis, or any other candidate, but his day-long foray with DeSantis, who Sununu had previously derided as a “big government Republican,” was his most substantial investment of time yet on another candidate’s behalf.

“He’s been in Washington, he’s been a successful governor, in a big state like Florida, which is a very important role,” Sununu told reporters.

DeSantis, who has been slow to embrace the face-to-face retail campaigning that arguably typifies the New Hampshire primary, was at pains to show he is willing to try to win here the old fashioned way. In an hour of campaigning at the Londonderry branch of the Red Arrow diner, DeSantis packed in a good deal of small talk — chatting with breakfasters about the weather, college football, and his son Mason — and tried to radiate the kind of honored-to-be-here energy of the practiced campaigner.

“This is going to be a great day,” DeSantis remarked to one booth full of people. “We’re doing a couple of town halls, some house parties. We are doing some media stuff. We are excited to be here.”

This visit comes as recent polls show DeSantis — who has premised his early state strategy largely on Iowa — losing ground in New Hampshire to Trump and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. DeSantis promised he was working to change that trend.

“I think it’s going to be a dual focus from here on out, so you are going to see a lot of us,” he told a voter who had traveled from Massachusetts to catch him.

Efforts to tap into regional loyalties were clearly a focus for the Florida governor, who repeatedly mentioned that he and his family has just toured Fenway Park.

“We were inside the (Green) Monster and on top of it,” he noted at one point.

DeSantis also emphasized he’d lived in New England while attending college at Yale and law school at Harvard.

“And for all seven years, I tell people, I was for the Red Sox over the Yankees,” he said.

DeSantis’s efforts to connect appeared to work fine in Londonderry: His campaign seeded The Red Arrow crowd with backers ahead of his visit, including families involved in homeschooling, some local GOP lawmakers, and a few employees of Never Back Down, a political action committee backing his candidacy.

On the way out of the diner, DeSantis told the scrum of reporters trailing him that he understands the value of engaging with voters close-up. He faulted Trump, who held a large rally in Derry a day earlier, for not doing the same.

"What Donald Trump does now is, he is wedded to the teleprompter; he can’t get off that teleprompter.” DeSantis said. “This is a different Donald Trump than in 2015 and 2016. He’s lost the zip on his fastball and has a sense of entitlement.”

Sununu jumped in as well: With Donald Trump, there is no conversation,” he added.”He doesn't want to let anyone get near him. He doesn’t want to engage.”

How much engagement at close-quarters Trump needs at this point in the primary race is an open question. Polling shows him leading every other Republican candidate comfortably.

But that doesn’t mean all Republicans who backed Trump in earlier campaigns will do so again.

After meeting DeSantis Tuesday, Maria Barud of Londonderry, who said she believed Trump was good for the economy, said she plans to vote for DeSantis — for pragmatic reasons.

“I think he’s got a better chance of winning against a Democratic candidate than Trump because Trump may pull out people just to vote against him,” Barud said.

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