What to watch for at Ron DeSantis’ CNN town hall in New Hampshire

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is getting right back to work Tuesday, a day after his second-place finish in the Iowa Republican caucuses, making his case to voters at a CNN town hall in New Hampshire after a brief stopover in South Carolina.

DeSantis is facing major headwinds in the Granite State, where former President Donald Trump, who lapped the field in Iowa, and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley have led him in recent polling. That is due, at least in part, to New Hampshire’s more politically diverse primary electorate, which includes independents who can vote in intraparty contests.

The town hall comes at a pivotal point for DeSantis. As his campaign struggled to make headway in Iowa, he attacked the same conservative media hubs that had once championed. That criticism might get more traction in New Hampshire. So too, the DeSantis campaign hopes, will his increasingly sharp attacks on Trump.

“As the next president of the United States, I am going to get the job done for this country,” DeSantis said Monday night in Iowa, before jabbing at the front-runner. “I am not going to make any excuses, and I guarantee you this: I will not let you down.”

As the GOP primary kicks into gear and DeSantis makes his way up north, here are four things to watch for in his CNN town hall:

About Iowa …

It’s been less than 24 hours since Trump dominated in Iowa, winning about 50% of the vote. DeSantis spent big money and a lot of time in the state, which, in theory, should have been ripe for his conservative message.  But he finished only slightly ahead of Haley, who did not campaign as heavily in Iowa and always had one eye on New Hampshire.

The DeSantis team, along with the candidate himself, said after the results came in that they were in this for the long haul. But what went wrong in Iowa?  In the week before the caucuses, DeSantis began to attack right-wing media organs for their kid-gloves treatment of Trump. At an event in Urbandale, Iowa, the governor said Trump was shielded from criticism by a “Praetorian Guard of the conservative media,” including Fox News. Will he continue his criticism along those lines?

Even then, it’s hard to hand-wave a 30-point loss and a failure to win any of Iowa’s 99 counties. New Hampshire has a very different electorate, as does South Carolina (to a lesser extent), but candidates want to tell stories. What kind of story will DeSantis tell about his disappointing returns in the Hawkeye State?

DeSantis greets supporters at his caucus night event in West Des Moines, Iowa, on January 15, 2024. - Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images
DeSantis greets supporters at his caucus night event in West Des Moines, Iowa, on January 15, 2024. - Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

The expectations game

Unlike in Iowa, DeSantis will enter New Hampshire as an underdog. He says he likes that role, but after underperforming his initial expectations in Iowa, his campaign is in desperate need of good news. The Florida governor will likely try to paint a picture of what success for him in the Granite State looks like – and it will be instructive to see where he sets the bar.

The CNN poll of the New Hampshire GOP primary from last week did not provide DeSantis much to cling to, with Trump (39%) and Haley (32%) leading the pack. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (12%) and tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy (8%), who have both since dropped out of the race, also placed ahead of DeSantis, who came in at 5%. Ramaswamy endorsed Trump on Monday night and Christie has, so far, remained silent. Haley, though, seems the most likely to attract his erstwhile supporters.

None of that is a secret, much less to DeSantis, who flew to South Carolina after the caucuses rather than heading straight to New Hampshire. The message was clear: He sees a greater opportunity down South than up north. But there’s no skipping the Granite State, appealing as that might sound to him right now, and how DeSantis addresses the hurdle ahead will provide new insight into his path forward – at least how he sees it.

Does DeSantis go harder at Trump?

CNN’s entrance poll in Iowa showed DeSantis in a stronger position than Haley among conservative voters — especially those looking for a candidate who shares their values.

What the Florida governor has never figured out, though, is how to chip away at Trump’s lead without alienating more of those conservative voters than he’s attracting.

In the final days before the Iowa caucuses, DeSantis previewed a more aggressive line of attack against Trump. He told a crowd Sunday in Ankeny that Trump had failed to deliver on his 2016 campaign promises and puts his own interests over those of the party.

“You can be the most worthless Republican in America, but if you kiss the ring, he’ll say you’re wonderful. You can be the strongest, most dynamic, successful Republican and conservative in America, but if you don’t kiss that ring, then he’ll try to trash you,” DeSantis said. “You deserve a nominee to put you first, not himself first.”

However, the four criminal indictments Trump faces resulted in polling bumps for him among likely Republican primary voters. And his 2024 rivals, including DeSantis, didn’t seek to change that reality — largely avoiding criticizing him directly for his legal woes stemming from his role in the January 6, 2021, insurrection, his alleged mishandling of classified documents and more.

DeSantis’ case against Haley

Haley has long viewed New Hampshire as a springboard for her campaign — a state where a win could effectively turn the GOP primary into a one-on-one race between Trump and his former US ambassador to the United Nations.

But DeSantis sent the signal Tuesday that he isn’t leaving anytime soon by traveling to South Carolina before continuing to New Hampshire.

The Palmetto State is Haley’s home turf. But the demographics of South Carolina — a state where evangelicals make up a huge share of the GOP primary electorate — look more favorable for Trump and DeSantis. The Florida governor likely has those voters in mind as he makes the case to Republican voters (and donors) that it’ll still be a three-person race, even if he finishes far behind Trump and Haley in New Hampshire.

On Tuesday morning, DeSantis said in Greenville, South Carolina, that his second-place finish in Iowa proves that he is the “alternative” for voters seeking a different option than Trump and not Haley, who he said won’t appeal to core conservative voters.

He said Haley and her allies had attempted to effectively end DeSantis’ campaign by placing ahead of him in Iowa but failed.

“It was all about trying to beat me, and they failed in beating me,” he said. “You’re gonna start to see as we go, I mean, she’s not going to win New Hampshire either. I mean, that’s obviously the case just because she hasn’t performed well in debates.”

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