Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday evening stepped in front of a suburban South Carolina crowd eager to hear the Republican presidential candidate respond to a weekend of hand wringing over his early performance and headlines about staff cuts and financial troubles.
“Are you ready to help me send Joe Biden to his basement in Delaware?” DeSantis began, tossing out a line that has kicked off most of his speeches in some form since he formally announced his presidential candidacy in May.
For all the talk of a DeSantis “reset” in recent days – including privately from those close to the Republican’s political operation – there’s little coming from the candidate himself that would suggest change is afoot. DeSantis’ remarks Monday in Tega Cay, South Carolina, were a near carbon copy of the speech he has delivered at campaign stops for weeks. The next morning, he unveiled another priority targeting “wokeness” in society, this time aimed at the military.
Later in the day, a prime opportunity for the governor to kickstart a reboot – a highly anticipated interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper on Tuesday, his first sit down outside of conservative media – was overshadowed by the latest developments in Donald Trump’s legal saga. Instead of stepping out against the former president to signal a new phase in his campaign, DeSantis remained deferential, saving his criticism for federal investigators and not the actions of his top rival for the 2024 Republican nomination. Any admonishment for Trump was shrouded in subtlety.
“If I’m the nominee, we’ll be able to focus on President Biden’s failures, and I’ll be able to articulate a positive vision for the future,” DeSantis told Tapper. “I don’t think it serves us good to have a presidential election focused on what happened four years ago.”
The unflappable outward appearances of its candidate belies a campaign in flux. His team has started cutting expenses less than two months after launching, a sign of a political operation that perhaps expanded too quickly out of the gate. Over the weekend, a spokesperson for DeSantis’ campaign confirmed to CNN it let go of some staffers, after Politico reported that “fewer than 10 staffers” in event planning were cut on Thursday. The large security presence that previously guarded DeSantis events – often administered by a handful of burly men who checked every guest with handheld metal detectors and surveyed their personal effects – was noticeably absent from his South Carolina campaign stops this week.
The trimming comes even as DeSantis raised $20 million in the first six weeks after jumping into the GOP primary – a strong showing at first glance that nevertheless fell short of lofty goals set in the run-up to his campaign. Other worrying markers include a reliance on large donations, which can suggest underwhelming grassroots support. Additionally, about $3 million of his haul came in the form of donations that cannot be spent until a general election.
His campaign has also burned through cash at a high rate. Over six weeks, DeSantis had spent $686,000 on travel including expenses for private jets, according to campaign finance records, and his payroll topped $1 million.
With his poll numbers stalled and less money available than anticipated, it is expected that DeSantis will refocus his campaign efforts on Iowa, which is increasingly viewed within his political orbit as a must-win state for the Florida governor. DeSantis visited Iowa earlier this month for a multi-county tour and to speak to the state’s influential evangelical voters at an event Trump notably skipped. His super PAC this week began airing a new ad highlighting the former president’s recent jabs at popular Iowa Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds that included a fake replica of Trump’s voice generated through controversial new AI technology.
“We’re just going to keep building that momentum,” DeSantis said. “It’s a state-by-state process and doing well in those states makes a huge difference by the time you get to South Carolina.”
DeSantis has expressed confidence in the strategy that has gotten him this far, which, for now, leaves him well ahead of the rest of the field but firmly behind Trump. This weekend, DeSantis will travel to Utah, where he is expected to meet with Republican state lawmakers, a group that has become key to his efforts to build local support. His top fundraisers will also meet in Park City, Utah, for a previously scheduled summit that has gained new urgency amid concerns some GOP donors are considering other candidates.
Talking to reporters Tuesday after submitting paperwork to qualify for South Carolina’s primary ballot, DeSantis characterized his campaign’s spending as “investments” to win early nominating states and dismissed suggestions of financial trouble.
“You hear some of these narratives and you’re like, good lord, how do you spin?” DeSantis said moments after handing in paperwork to officially qualify for the ballot in South Carolina. “In the second quarter, we were a candidate for about five and a half weeks, our campaign raised $20.1 million dollars. Joe Biden is the sitting president of the United States. In his campaign committee, not the DNC, he raised $19.9 (million), Donald Trump raised $17.7 million and Trump spent more than we did.”
The remarks echoed frustrations among his supporters with the narrative emerging about DeSantis given his enviable financial position. In addition to his campaign’s haul, a supportive super PAC, Never Back Down, announced it had raised $130 million since launching in March, about $83 million of which was transferred from DeSantis’ former state political committee.
But they also acknowledge DeSantis has run a campaign that is far from perfect, beginning with the technical woes that plagued his planned candidacy announcement on Twitter. And he has faced new headwinds, including from Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, which is no longer featuring the Republican leader with fawning coverage as it has for much of the past two years. With Fox News no longer fully friendly, his campaign has lately warmed to more mainstream national outlets that DeSantis had previously marginalized and denigrated over the years.
Some supporters have also bemoaned DeSantis’ hard pivot right and high-profile battles with Disney for turning off Republican donors who might otherwise be sympathetic to his insurgent campaign against Trump.
DeSantis, though, has shrugged off these concerns. Speaking to Tapper on Tuesday, he pointed to his 19-point victory last fall in a one-time swing state as evidence that his agenda can appeal to voters in swing states who may determine the outcome of the GOP primary and the presidential election.
“Our bread and butter were people like suburban moms,” he said. “We’re leading a big movement for parents’ rights, to have the parents be involved in education, school choice, get the indoctrination outta schools.”
Republican voters attending his events appear receptive to his message. Lu Aiken, a member of Republican Women Rising in South Carolina, said she was undecided but DeSantis was at the top of her list.
“I’m all for youth,” she told CNN outside of DeSantis’ Tega Cay event. “I think we’ve had too many old presidents. I’m sorry, I’m ready for a young president, and I’m old. But still, I think it’s time for somebody young and energetic. I worked real hard to get Trump elected last time, and I feel like he kind of let us down by talking so much and some of the things he did.”
Still, even his supporters are aware of the challenge DeSantis faces trying to overcome an unconventional front runner in Trump.
“The only thing going against Ron is that he’s not Trump,” Jonathan Sievers, a real estate agent from Weddington, South Carolina, said while waiting to hear DeSantis speak on Monday. “So, I think a lot more Trump supporters would be on his train if Trump wasn’t in the race.”