LACONIA, NH – Ron DeSantis arrived in Laconia right on time Thursday morning, taking the stage in his black cowboy boots and slightly faded blue jeans while flashing a grin that looked like the emoji for a grimace.
The crowd at VFW Post 1670 had gathered to see DeSantis, the newest Republican presidential hopeful, deliver a 45-minute speech laced with the usual bits of red meat: No More “Transgender Ideology” in Schools and Athletics. No more “child sex change operations.” No more elites living “high up” in Washington.
But the Florida governor, known for his rigid and sometimes unusual demeanor, also softened some of his edges. he he he did not reference to exert his executive power to push an ultra-conservative agenda in Florida, despite winning less than 60% of the vote in his re-election for governor. He did not mention the six week abortion ban enacted the law. He claimed that people who voted to support the presidential bid of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Democratic socialist, also backed DeSantis’ 2022 reelection due to his lax COVID-19 policies. And he appeared with Florida’s first lady, Casey DeSantis, a tall former TV host with a deep, mellow voice who talked about her three young children.
“I brought the Florida sun for you guys,” Ron DeSantis said at the top of his comments on an unusually hot day in New Hampshire, with temperatures reaching 95 degrees.
But the question remains whether this will be enough to counter efforts by Democrats and former President Donald Trump to convince voters that DeSantis is the 2024 version of previous failed nominees like Mitt Romney and Al Gore, who were impeached. of being too uncomfortable and out of place. he has to be commander in chief.
After each of his four events in the nation’s first presidential primary state, DeSantis briefly circulated through the crowd, draped by an entourage that included several Florida law enforcement officers who kept the prying press and everyone else out of the crowd. they get too close.
DeSantis shook hands. He posed for the photos. He patted people on the back. He said a few things about soccer and signed papers that were passed through a staff member, all while being led to an exit and a running black SUV ready to take him to his next destination.
This was the first time the governor tried out the campaign as a declared presidential candidate in New Hampshire, a state known for its confusing and no-nonsense approach to determining who should be in the White House.
Although DeSantis didn’t necessarily fail the Granite State test — voters generally seemed impressed with the more toned-down, humanized version of the governor — he didn’t pass it either, flouting New Hampshire’s longstanding tradition of answering questions directly from voters in front of an audience. His appearances, which consisted of a campaign speech and a brief conversation with a local activist, had the flavor of a long, monotonous Fox News hit.
“I would like to be asked questions because this is the only state in the country where a mechanic could be a constitutional scholar,” said Julian Acciard, a former Republican congressional candidate who was disappointed by the lack of speech from DeSantis and other candidates this week. campaign cycle. “I’ve seen dog trainers go toe-to-toe with Harvard academics.”
The vast majority of Republican primary voters know DeSantis as the governor who opposed the COVID-19 lockdowns and went after Disney. In Laconia, DeSantis did his best to fill in the biographical gaps.
He cited his “blue collar” upbringing in Florida, where he was raised by a mother who was a nurse and a father who worked for Nielsen, the television ratings company. (“You actually had to put rating boxes on TVs back then!” DeSantis said, referencing a cultural touchstone for some of the older voters in the room.) He also marked his turn as a star Little League baseball player. His time in the US Navy. His first minimum-wage job as an electrician’s assistant, and having to spend a full salary on work boots that were approved by safety regulators. but which he considered unnecessary for the role.
“That was a life lesson that when the government says it’s going to protect you, sometimes it’s not necessarily,” said DeSantis, who also described showing up to Yale University as a Florida beach bum in pants. jean shorts and flip flops.
Casey DeSantis, dressed in skinny jeans, a blue zip-up jacket and white pointy heels, along with a face of makeup that stayed perfectly powdered in the thick New England humidity, provided an interlude at her husband’s event.
He likened the fast-paced and grueling nature of the campaign to putting his kids in the car and trying to convince younger ones that “you can’t buckle your seatbelt into the cup holder, it doesn’t work that way.” She referred to her husband as “the better half”-emphasis on “he” — and someone who “never changes, never backs down, never takes the path of least resistance.”
If the goal of Ron DeSantis’ early state debut was to make him seem like a person who likes to interact with other people, it worked. Sue Nelson, the leader of a local Republican women’s group, managed to grab DeSantis for just seconds in Laconia before she ran out the door. She told him that one of her children was moving to Amelia Island, a vacation destination on the east coast of Florida.
“He said it was beautiful,” said Nelson, who found DeSantis to be “warm” onstage and more multidimensional than he appears on TV. “You look at all these politicians, and a lot of them have to read their speeches. … But what he was saying comes from the heart.”
This was the opposite impression from the one DeSantis had been leaving just weeks ago, when he was promoting his memoir on a book tour largely seen as a run-up to a then-unannounced presidential bid.
DeSantis’ aversion to chatting became apparent after he smaller groups ripped off from Republican activists in Michigan and Texas who had made time to see it. That stretch, combined with news about his strange behavior, like when he allegedly ate pudding with three of his fingers on a private flight, coincided with a drop in the polls, giving Trump a substantial lead over the governor in polls of New Hampshire and national Republican primary electorates.
And the Granite State journey was not without its rough patches. After a reporter yelled a question about why DeSantis wasn’t Q&A with voters, let off his guard.
“People come up to me, talk to me. What are you talking about?” he snapped. “I am here working with the people. You’re blind?”
Later, during an appearance on Fox News, he gave a bizarre response to a simple question about how he prefers to pronounce his last name.
“YouHow do you pronounce my last name? Winner,” she said.
Still, New Hampshire voters left, if not sold on DeSantis, at least happy with the array of 2024 candidates, including South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley. , who, along with DeSantis, feature younger options. for the party.
“I think the Republicans have a lot of candidates who can move this country forward in a positive way,” said Peggy Selig, an 81-year-old retiree who would choose DeSantis over Trump if the choice came down to the two. “I don’t think it comes with the same baggage.”
“He is an intelligent man, with his feet on the ground. He wants to protect our children,” Martha Bartle, a retired nurse, said after DeSantis’ Manchester stop, which drew a crowd of pro-Trump protesters outside the community college where DeSantis made his last appearance of the day.
A protester wearing a “Make America Great Again” cap complained that DeSantis couldn’t draw as big a crowd as Trump at rallies.
“Thousands of people!” said the man, who declined to share his name. “It makes you wonder, what was it really? Did (now President Joe) Biden really win? We all know that was a lie, right?
That DeSantis not bring up Trump’s lies about the 2020 election, or name him at all, was probably the governor’s most effective weapon against the guy with bigger crowds, more charisma and looser lips.
“I still like Trump, but I call (DeSantis) Trump Jr. classier,” said Pauline Gianunzio, a 46-year-old small-business owner and one-time Trump voter who approved of what she saw of DeSantis. “He knows what to say and how to say it.”