CONCORD, N.H. - Florida Governor Ron DeSantis met for an hour Friday with New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu - a potential rival for the GOP presidential nomination - ahead of his campaign launch as he swung through the first-in-the-nation primary state.
Sununu, who is seriously considering a presidential bid and has urged the GOP to move on from Donald Trump, has also recently criticized some of DeSantis's policy moves, including the Florida governor's still-escalating battle with Disney, which Sununu and some other Republicans consider at odds with "free market" conservatism. But Sununu nodded to common ground with DeSantis during a brief interview Friday after their meeting.
"We have a great relationship," Sununu said in a hall of the State House. He said he meets with "everybody" as 2024 hopefuls flock to his state. Asked if he and DeSantis discussed any areas of disagreement, such as Disney, Sununu simply said they covered a range of topics. His spokesman, Ben Vihstadt, said they discussed strategies on how to perform well in the New Hampshire primary, among other topics.
Friday was DeSantis's second trip this year to the Granite State. Support here could be pivotal in the governor's efforts to pull ahead of Trump, the clear front-runner in national polling. DeSantis is expected to officially launch his campaign next week - just after his visits to New Hampshire and Iowa, another early nominating state that DeSantis's team is focused on. He has already secured long lists of endorsements from lawmakers in both places.
"What I'm concerned about is being able to fill my legislature with Republicans - and if I do not have strong winning candidates at the top of the ticket to pull all the rest of us along, we're going to have a hard time," said New Hampshire House Majority Leader Jason Osborne, who said DeSantis called him last week after his endorsement.
He was echoing a broader argument about Trump's electability that DeSantis and allies have made increasingly explicit. They contend the Florida governor can win the general election in swing states where Trump lost in 2020.
"You have basically three people at this point that are credible in this whole thing," DeSantis told donors to a supportive super PAC on a call this week, according to the New York Times. "Biden, Trump and me. And I think of those three, two have a chance to get elected president - Biden and me, based on all the data in the swing states." Representatives for DeSantis did not respond to questions about comments on the call. In recent dinners with donors, DeSantis has similarly pitched himself as more likely to win swing states, according to attendees.
Sununu has also argued that Trump cannot win a general election - more bluntly and publicly. "Donald Trump is positioning himself to be a four-time loser in 2024," he said last month on NBC's "Meet the Press."
DeSantis, who is looking to rebound from some stumbles, is expected to start fundraising for his presidential campaign next week as donors convene in Miami.
But the governor steered clear of the 2024 presidential race during his public remarks to about 30 New Hampshire lawmakers at a roundtable Friday morning. Seated next to Osborne, DeSantis got cheers for his criticisms of "diversity, equity and inclusion" programs - which he has defunded at state colleges and universities - and for his support of a Florida sales tax exemption for baby items.
He leaned into retail politics, stopping to give one lawmaker's baby a kiss before sitting down. Later, at the Red Arrow Diner - a cramped, classic campaign stop in Manchester - DeSantis talked up his policies to receptive voters, lingering for a bit with each customer as he made his way down the counter. Sometimes criticized as stiff, the governor was all smiles as he asked children questions and mentioned his family.
"Four, okay, that's a great age," he said to one child.
"That looks good - my kids would be devouring those fries, I know that," DeSantis said later.
New Hampshire Republicans noted parallels between their agenda and the bills DeSantis has passed in Florida, such as shared resistance to coronavirus restrictions.
On another issue, abortion, DeSantis has gone much further than Republican leaders in New Hampshire: He recently signed into law a ban on the procedure in Florida after six weeks of pregnancy, while New Hampshire - where Republicans control state government - still allows abortions up to 24 weeks post-Roe v. Wade. But one man at the Red Arrow praised DeSantis for his handling of the issue.
"Thank you for protecting babies," the man said, reaching out to shake DeSantis's hand across the counter.
"Oh yeah, yeah, yeah - no, you can count on me," DeSantis said.
Steve Vargas said he was eager to meet DeSantis at the Red Arrow even though he comes from "more of a Trump family." If he had to vote in the primary today, he said, he'd pick Trump. But he shares others' worries about the former president's ability to win reelection.
Ryan Mulholland, 50, said that if Trump faces President Biden in the general election, he'll just stay home.
“He just should step aside because all he’s going to do is . . . I think he would bring more controversy,” Mulholland said.