CONCORD, N.H. — The last time held a public event in New Hampshire, he was solidly in second place in the first GOP primary state.
Seven weeks later, the Florida governor has slipped, is rising and Chris Christie and are both within striking distance in the race to become the primary alternative to .
In no early nominating state is the race for second place as fluid as in New Hampshire.
In this notoriously late-breaking state with a libertarian streak where independents are poised to play an outsize role in the Republican primary, DeSantis’ polling decline has created an opening for Haley, the former South Carolina governor. But Christie and Ramaswamy aren’t very far behind. Trump maintains a roughly 30-point lead, but the race for second place is suddenly wide open in a state that served as a comeback bid for the White House dreams of John McCain, Bill Clinton and, in 2016, Trump.
“Right now it is still Trump versus the field, but very soon the field will turn into one or possibly two viable alternatives,” said Republican operative Matthew Bartlett, who has worked on several presidential campaigns and is unaffiliated in this race.
For months, most of the GOP field has focused its resources on Iowa, the first caucus state. DeSantis and his team have decamped to the Hawkeye State, where he ranks second to Trump in public polls, has befriended the state’s popular governor and stands to get the endorsement of an influential evangelical leader. Religious conservatives like Tim Scott and Mike Pence are focusing far more on Iowa than New Hampshire. And Ramaswamy makes frequent stops there as well.
But over the past two weeks, the campaign in New Hampshire is finally taking off. Haley and Christie — who’s staked his campaign on New Hampshire from the start — have hired state directors as they look to expand their footprints here. DeSantis, in a recent local radio appearance, insisted voters are “going to be seeing a lot more” of him in the coming weeks. Nearly the entire GOP field descended on the state this weekend for their first major cattle call before the primary and to file for the presidential primary ballot. And Trump, after appearing here earlier this week, will return later this month to submit his name for the ballot and hold another rally.
“New Hampshire is so wide open,” DeSantis said this week, speaking with reporters after registering to get on the ballot in a cramped office in the state capitol. “There’s a lot of ground to be able to trod here. And I think more and more people are going to start keying in and when they do that, I think we’re going to be able to present ourselves as the top candidate.”
Trump maintains an overwhelming advantage in New Hampshire. His was the first campaign to hire in the state this cycle and remains one of the few with any real presence on the ground. History, too, is on his side — Granite State voters gave Trump his first primary win in 2016.
Yet Trump’s rivals have some reasons to believe they have an opportunity in the state. Roughly two-thirds of likely GOP primary voters are not firmly with any candidate, a recent University of New Hampshire survey found. Rival campaigns and some unaffiliated operatives in the state believe that Trump’s support is softer than his so-far yawning lead in polls suggests. And at campaign stop after campaign stop for other candidates, non-Trump voters say they are eager for the lowest-polling of the lower-polling candidates to get out of the race so they can coalesce around a main contender against the former president.
In no other early state is it less clear who that might be. The broader GOP field is fanning out across New Hampshire this weekend, speaking to Republican activists in a hotel ballroom in Nashua and shuttling between mom-and-pop markets in the White Mountains and town halls on the Seacoast.
But the stakes are highest for DeSantis and Haley.
DeSantis all but abandoned New Hampshire for nearly two months, keeping up appearances through call-ins to local radio stations and canvass efforts from his allied super PAC, Never Back Down. Meanwhile, his poll numbers fell sharply. Haley, the former South Carolina governor, turned a solid first debate performance into buzz on the ground and a bump in the polls that’s stretched into autumn.
Now DeSantis is scrambling to reestablish himself in the state where he once beat Trump in an early poll. He is leaning on the backing of 71 state officials and isn’t troubled by “unreliable public polling” months before voters head to the polls, his spokesperson Andrew Romeo said. Never Back Down, meanwhile, has hired 23 New Hampshire staffers and knocked on 263,500 doors, according to spokesperson Dave Vasquez.
The Florida governor hopscotched the state this week, emphasizing his military background, accusing President Joe Biden of being “lethargic” in his response to the Hamas attack on Israel and touting his record on Covid-19.
“Yesterday and today really starts our New Hampshire blitz,” DeSantis told reporters after speaking at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics on Friday afternoon. “It’s not going to happen in polls immediately. But you’re going to see it.”
The way voters heaped praise on — or challenged — DeSantis at events was indicative of the high interest he’s still generating. During a stop at a food market in Littleton, one voter thanked DeSantis for efforts to transport Americans back from Israel amid the escalating violence, while another challenged his support of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and left the store in a huff, saying DeSantis had lost his vote.
“That was really moving that [DeSantis] felt the conviction to mobilize help,” New Hampshire Republican Laurie Anan said. “I have an Israeli friend here. … They just felt such a sense of abandonment.”
Still, in a sign of how up-in-the-air the electorate is here, Anan said she has not decided whether to support DeSantis or Trump.
And DeSantis no longer just has Trump to worry about. Haley is running ahead of the Florida governor in several polls and in the Real Clear Politics polling average in the state. She has a 10-county leadership team and, with roughly 60 events so far, has spent significantly more time in New Hampshire than DeSantis. She returned this week with fresh endorsements — from former congressmember and now-former rival Will Hurd and New Hampshire state Sen. Bill Gannon — and new state director Mak Kehoe.
Jason Osborne, the majority leader in the New Hampshire state House who backs DeSantis, said that Haley has been “working at it a long time in New Hampshire” and that if DeSantis “were to decide not to campaign here, she might be able to pull that off.”
“But I think on equal footing, once Ron spends some time here,” he said, “people are going to see there’s a clear difference in experience and qualifications to get this job done.”
If Haley’s debate performances earned her a second or third (or fourth or fifth) look from New Hampshire voters, the former U.N. ambassador’s foreign policy credentials are keeping heads turned her way following the attack on Israel.
“I’ve been there. I went to go see how the Palestinians live,” Haley said during a town hall at an American Legion post in Rochester on Thursday. “And I was there in the [Hamas] tunnels.”
That experience helped sell Elaine Blaybock, a Sanbornville independent who walked into Haley’s event looking for something to sell her on the former South Carolina governor and left signing a supporter sheet.
“That’s what people are looking for and what’s going to catapult her,” Kimberly Rice, a former New Hampshire House speaker pro tempore who is supporting Haley, said in an interview. Rice said her daughter recently switched her voter registration from Democrat to Republican to vote for Haley in the GOP primary — one of 408 such voters to do so ahead of the deadline earlier this month.
Yet Haley can only rise so far if voters continue to vacillate between a dozen candidates. Republicans and independents who say they’re interested in Haley are also looking at Christie. And Ramaswamy. And Trump.
Trump’s rivals insist they’re playing the long game. Christie says it’s still early. He just brought on a state director, Jeff LaCourse. And Matt Mowers, a former congressional candidate in the state who’s worked for Christie and Trump in the past, is now serving as a political adviser to the former New Jersey governor, his campaign said.
Ramaswamy has long talked about building momentum “slowly and steadily” through the end of the year and told reporters in Nashua on Friday that polls have “missed” voters who are coming to his events who have “never participated” in a primary before.
“I feel like we have a very clear path,” Ramaswamy said.
Yet many voters who don’t want Trump to be the nominee are getting anxious. They want the field to shrink so they can get a better sense of who could emerge as the main contender against Trump. And they don’t want to wait for the Iowa caucuses to cull it.
“The candidates who are not currently polling well, the moment is over for them,” said Chris Pease, a New Hampshire independent who’s leaning toward Haley, after hearing her speak in Exeter this week. “It’s extremely selfish for them to stay in and to continue to divide the anti-Trump vote.”