BEDFORD, N.H. — Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida entered a perfectly set hotel breakfast room Friday morning, made a beeline for a lawmaker’s baby, and waved off the fully loaded plate of eggs, sausage, and bacon that had been left at his place setting.
It was a minutely choreographed appearance — in which he met with at least 30 supportive local lawmakers, stopped at a postcard-ready diner, and met privately with the state’s loquacious governor and his potential 2024 rival, Chris Sununu — and it went off without a hitch.
All the smooth staging, however, belied the tricky territory DeSantis could face when he makes his long anticipated entry into the presidential race, likely next week.
“It’s easy to be a front-runner,” DeSantis told the assembled lawmakers, taking what seemed to be a dismissive shot at former president Donald Trump that also acknowledged that he, himself, is not currently one. “It’s harder to dig in and really cut against the grain.”
DeSantis’ underdog self-branding in New Hampshire is a shift from his bravado at home where a cruise to reelection last fall, submissive state legislature, and massive war chest once fueled a perception that he was all but untouchable in the 2024 presidential primary. In reality, he will enter the field in a less formidable position, trailing Trump in key primary state polls by double digits.
“Like apparently most of the rest of the country, he’s in second place (here),” said Dave Carney, a New Hampshire-based Republican strategist. “The question is whether DeSantis can make the case that he should be the alternative to Trump.”
DeSantis faces other setbacks, too: This week, his chief corporate foil, Disney, announced it was canceling plans to develop a billion-dollar office complex in Florida. And even his rollout of dozens of endorsements from New Hampshire lawmakers — meant as a show of political strength — was marred with the news that a handful of them had also endorsed the former president.
But perhaps most daunting for DeSantis is the fact that the combined weight of Trump’s declared candidacy and his looming one has failed to preemptively clear a presidential field that is instead stubbornly expanding.
“I think the governor views other entrants to the race as eating into his margins, not Trump’s margins,” said David Urban, a Republican political strategist and former Trump campaign adviser. “A crowded field hurts DeSantis far more than it hurts Trump.”
On Friday, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina officially filed paperwork to run for president, with a formal announcement planned for Monday. Former vice president Mike Pence is widely expected to declare a bid of his own, and newer names, like Governor Doug Burgum of North Dakota, have also surfaced as likely contenders in recent days.
And that’s still just a partial list. A polished campaign-style video from Governor Glenn Youngkin of Virginia released this week stoked new speculation that he might be willing to enter the field later this year, while moderate Republicans like Sununu and former governor Chris Christie of New Jersey are still eyeing campaigns of their own.
“Maybe in January it will start thinning out,” said Chris Ager, chair of the New Hampshire Republican Party, as he waited for DeSantis to arrive at the iconic Red Arrow Diner in Manchester.
In recent days, DeSantis and Trump have still trained most of their fire on each other, with each taking steps to depict the other as the bigger loser. In a Wednesday e-mail with the subject line “Ron DeSanctimonius: A Culture of Losing,” the Trump campaign gleefully highlighted the fact that two candidates he endorsed in Tuesday primary elections in Kentucky and Florida lost their races.
DeSantis, meanwhile, has cast himself as an electable candidate who has been able to use his coattails to notch down-ballot victories that have helped him secure a slew of policy wins.
“We did well up and down the ballot, but that’s just the ticket to the dance,” he told the lawmakers gathered at a tony inn here on Friday. “The real dance is, what are you going to do with that?”
And last weekend in Iowa, DeSantis seized on Trump’s decision to cancel a planned rally in Des Moines by making a surprise visit to that city. He warned Republicans against a “culture of losing that has infected our party in recent years,” which seemed to be a jab at the former president’s record of losses on the national stage.
The sparring between DeSantis and Trump could be fueling interest among other candidates in running against them.
“I think people think like, ‘These guys are going to kill each other and I’ll go up the middle,’” Urban said.
In a possible preview of the incoming fire he will face when he enters the field, the other declared candidates were quick to take shots at DeSantis for making only a limited number of stops here, and for failing to answer questions from the press.
“If he can’t take questions from reporters, how is he going to stand up to Democrats and the establishment?” said Steven Cheung, a spokesman for the Trump campaign. “The answer is he can’t and he won’t, because he’s just as swampy as they are.”
Former UN ambassador Nikki Haley, who has already held nearly two dozen events in the state and has several more planned for next week, piled on, too.
“Nikki knows New Hampshire voters rightly expect candidates to meet them where they live, listen to them, and not take them for granted. Candidates who ignore that will pay a price,” said Ken Farnaso, a spokesman for Haley.
DeSantis tested out his retail politicking skills at the Red Arrow Diner in Manchester on Friday, where he asked the owners how long they’ve had the place, asked children their ages (“7? Good!”), and exhibited surprise at basic menu items.
“You guys have ice cream and everything!” he exclaimed.
At one point, New Hampshire Representative Katherine Prudhomme-O’Brien leaned over the counter to ask him about his spat with Disney. She pointed out that Haley, the former South Carolina governor, had welcomed Disney to her state with open arms.
“The chance of us backing down from that is zero,” DeSantis said, before moving on to greet other voters.
Prudhomme-O’Brien liked his answer, but said she wasn’t yet ready to make an endorsement.
“Being the biggest name in the field doesn’t mean that much to me,” she said. “I want to see people interact with regular people.”