DeSantis faces fresh challenges with return to campaign trail

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is gearing up to return to the campaign trail after a brief hiatus to respond to Hurricane Idalia last month.

DeSantis largely received positive coverage for his response to the storm, which served as an opportunity to showcase his executive leadership skills in a crisis.

But the governor now faces a tough road as he resumes his campaign tour, with recent polling showing former President Trump dominating the GOP primary.

“We are eager to get back into the early states,” DeSantis’s campaign manager James Uthmeier said last week on Fox News. “I think Iowans, they’re seeing a true leader. They’re seeing a man that’s driven by faith in God, love for family, service over self. They’re seeing somebody who actually walks the walk, who delivers.”

“We’ve seen him come out on a different stage, a level above everyone else, and I think you’ll see that separation grow, but we certainly look forward to getting back into Iowa and the early states,” he continued. 

But DeSantis’s return to the campaign spotlight comes after a Wall Street Journal poll found that Trump’s lead over the governor has nearly doubled since April.

According to the survey, 59 percent of Republicans said Trump was their first choice, with DeSantis trailing at 13 percent.

On top of that, a CNN poll released Tuesday found that 52 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning independent voters said they supported Trump, compared to 18 percent of voters who said the same about DeSantis. 

DeSantis allies argue that the Florida governor is still the clear favorite to beat Trump.

“The fundamental dynamics of the race have not changed. It’s a two-person race for the Republican nomination,” said Justin Sayfie, a Florida-based Republican strategist. “The only candidate that is in the running other than Trump is Ron DeSantis” 

The same CNN poll released Tuesday showed that while 81 percent of Republican primary voters said they would support or consider supporting the former president, while 78 percent said the same about DeSantis; 63 percent said the same about Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), while 63 percent and 58 percent said the same about former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, respectively. 

Additionally, the poll found that while 43 percent of Republican primary voters said they were definite Trump-backers, another 20 percent said they were firmly behind another candidate and 37 percent said they have no first choice or could change their minds.  

While Trump has dominated polls nationally, DeSantis’s team and his allies have been optimistic about Iowa. The governor’s presidential campaign has made the first-in-the-nation caucus state its top priority, zeroing in on Iowa’s grassroots conservative base. 

“I think the untold story is Iowa,” Sayfie said. “I think that if anyone wants to know who’s going to win the GOP nomination in 2024, they’ve got to start with Iowa and what’s happening on the ground there.” 

DeSantis has pledged to visit the state’s 99 counties and has already visited more than 50. The governor made Dyersville, Iowa, which features a famous site from the movie “Field of Dreams,” his first stop after the presidential primary debate last month. The campaign stop was a clear contrast from Trump, who was booked in the Fulton County, Ga., Jail that same day on felony charges linked to alleged efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election. 

Yet polling shows DeSantis continues to trail Trump in the Hawkeye State. A Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom Iowa poll released last month found Trump leading the field with 42 percent support and DeSantis trailing in second place at 19 percent support. 

But DeSantis’s supporters say there’s still time for the governor to build traction. 

“This could be the classic case of the tortoise and the hare,” Sayfie said. “That classic old fable where the hare got out to such a big lead that the tortoise just kept plugging along and ended up winning the race, and that could definitely happen in Iowa.” 

One potential bump for DeSantis could be his response to Hurricane Idalia, which was praised in the news media and put him in the national spotlight. 

DeSantis’s campaign has been touting the mostly positive coverage he received for his handling of the storm, releasing a video highlighting the coverage Monday. 

“Everybody understands that of all of the candidates, Ron has an actual job he has to do, and particularly in a crisis situation like they’re seeing down there with this hurricane,” said New Hampshire House Leader Jason Osborne (R), who has endorsed DeSantis. “It’s great to see what a bang-up job he does just handling crises like that, like a boss.” 

But it’s unclear how much of a bump DeSantis will get now that the storm and its recovery efforts are no longer a top story outside of Florida. 

“It’s hard to say,” Sayfie said. “I think that his handling of the hurricane and the response is a net positive, but ultimately voters in those early primary states are focused on issues that are important to them and their households.”

Osborne said that DeSantis’s handling of the hurricane will help his campaign if early-contest state voters “are paying attention.”

“His best campaigning would be if we could have a hidden camera behind him just watching him do his job,” Osborne said. 

The governor did raise eyebrows with his decision not to meet with President Biden during his trip to survey the damage from the storm last week. DeSantis’s office cited the logistical challenges of a presidential visit.

“In these rural communities, and so soon after impact, the security preparations alone that would go into setting up such a meeting would shut down ongoing recovery efforts,” said Jeremy Redfern, DeSantis’s press secretary. 

However, DeSantis has appeared with Biden in the wake of past crises in Florida, including the aftermath of Hurricane Ian last year and the building collapse in Surfside in 2021. 

Biden said when he was on the ground in Florida that he was not disappointed DeSantis didn’t take a meeting with him during his visit. 

“He may have had other reasons because … but he did help us plan this. He sat with FEMA and decided where we should go, where it’d be the least disruption,” the president said. 

And while appearing with Biden may have drawn positive attention from more moderate voters, the move to skip the meeting is unlikely to hurt him with the conservative base. 

“From the perspective of GOP presidential primary voters, it’s a net plus not to meet with him,” Sayfie said. “It appears by all accounts that the state and federal governments are coordinating their responses to help the hurricane victims.”

National Republican strategist Doug Heye noted that the decision not to meet with Biden allows the coverage to be painted with a partisan brush. 

“DeSantis earned a lot of good coverage for appearing with Biden during the last hurricane recovery,” Heye said. “It was an opportunity to show the culture warrior can also govern like an adult — an opportunity his opponents won’t have. So it’s somewhat surprising he was not with the president this time. Recovery efforts are going well — the most important thing — but much of the coverage is now takes on a partisan context.”

Tags Ron DeSantis