The DeSantis campaign is struggling to make a strong case against Trump

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, seeking to boost his presidential bid after an initial series of missteps, spent the past two weeks rolling out immigration policy and holding town halls with voters. But instead of correcting course, he stumbled again this week, raising questions about where his campaign is headed.

First, the team of Mr. DeSantis was forced to fight accusations, even from fellow Republicans, that he had shared a homophobic video on social media. Then a senior spokesman for the main super PAC supporting Mr. DeSantis acknowledged that former President Donald J. Trump was the “front runner” in the race, while Mr. DeSantis was facing an “uphill battle.”

“Right now in the national polls we’re way behind, I’ll be the first to admit it,” Councilman Steve Cortes said Sunday in a live event on Twitter. It was an admission markedly contrary to the confidence that the governor’s advisers usually project in public.

To top it off, in a visual representation of his recent troubles, Mr. DeSantis got drenched in a rainstorm as he marched in an Independence Day parade alongside several dozen supporters in New Hampshire, the crucial primary nominating state where his super PAC, Never Back Down, left to run TV ads in mid-May.

Meanwhile, Mr. Trump held a rally in South Carolina that drew thousands over the holiday weekend, a reminder of his enduring popularity among Republicans even though he lost 2020 and now faces at least two criminal trials.

The race is still early, but the tough week of Mr. DeSantis highlights the challenges facing his underdog campaign as it seeks a coherent strategy to move forward against Trump.

So far, Mr. DeSantis has tried to undermine his main rival by subtly contrasting their ages, temperaments and records on issues like the coronavirus pandemic without saying anything too nasty about the former president, whom he almost never mentions by name. He has also sought to move to the right of Mr. Trump on issues such as abortion and LGBTQ rights, while arguing that he is the Republican candidate best placed to attract voters and defeat President Biden.

But Mr. DeSantis, who has not proven to be a natural campaigner, has failed to take off in the polls, and his carefully choreographed public appearances have offered few of the headline-making moments his campaign, until recently, has worked to protect. he of potentially awkward unscripted interactions with voters and the media.

The faltering launch of his presidential campaign stands in stark contrast to the confident manner in which Mr. DeSantis has governed Florida, where he silenced opposition within his own party and crushed Democrats at the polls during the midterm elections. He has also given hope to other primary candidates, many of whom have jumped into the race in recent weeks, that they can replace him as the party’s most plausible alternative to Mr. Trump.

“DeSantis’ argument is electability,” said Sarah Longwell, a Republican strategist who holds regular focus groups with GOP voters. “But it’s undermining the electability argument by running to the right of Trump. It’s alienating college-educated suburban voters who want to move on from Trump,” as well as the independents he would need to beat Mr. Biden in a general election.

Ms. Longwell said the efforts of Mr. DeSantis to differentiate himself from Mr. Trump without directly criticizing him risked leaving the Florida governor without a natural constituency in the primaries.

“You can’t go around Trump,” he said. “You have to go through him.”

National polls show that Mr. DeSantis is ahead of Mr. Trump by approximately 30 points, a gap that has extended significantly since Mr. DeSantis began traveling the country this spring to pitch to voters.

However, Mr. DeSantis remains the former president’s primary challenger. He has demonstrated fundraising prowess, and Never Back Down is training an army of field organizers in early voting states. And in the dog days of summer, even before a primary debate scheduled for August has taken place, it’s too early to predict how Iowans and New Hampshireites will vote next year.

Bryan Griffin, a spokesman for the DeSantis campaign, said in an email that Mr. DeSantis had been “underrated” in every race he’s won.

“This campaign is a marathon, not a sprint; we will win,” Mr. Griffin wrote.

Mr. DeSantis has built his campaign in deliberate phases, first with a series of speeches to introduce the candidate to the public in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, then a round of town halls where Mr. DeSantis answered questions directly from voters and now gradually announced in-depth policy proposals, starting with immigration.

His campaign says it has focused its spending on field operations rather than television advertising, a strategy that may not produce immediate swings in the polls but that, his advisers argue, will pay off when the time comes. to vote

There are precedents for the slow strategy of Mr. DeSantis. At this point in the 2016 cycle, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas was election below 10 percent in Iowa. But Mr. Cruz later won the state, thanks in part to a well-crafted get-out-the-vote operation that Never Back Down wants to emulate. The campaign of Mr. DeSantis has so far focused largely on winning Iowa, where polls last month shown he goes after mr. Trump by about 20 points.

Mr. Cortés, the spokesman for Never Back Down, said his comments about the difficulties of running against Mr. Trump, first reported per Politico, they were simply an acknowledgment of reality. But he added that he believed Mr. DeSantis could win.

“Taking on a president or former president in the primaries always presents a significant challenge,” Mr. Cortés, who worked on Trump’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns. “I gladly accepted that reality upon joining the team. All of us on the DeSantis team are convinced that the governor has a path strong for the nomination and the best chance of any Republican to defeat Biden in the general election.”

Mr. Trump, a gifted showman, is known for hoovering up media coverage and attention, sucking the oxygen out of his rivals and trying to suffocate their campaigns before they become bigger threats.

Mr. DeSantis has also become known as a provocateur, successfully taking criticism from liberals and using it to gain support from his base. But a recent attempt that seemed designed to attract so much attention: a video which condemned Mr. Trump for expressing his support for LGBTQ people, appeared to backfire over the weekend, drawing criticism not only from Democrats but also from other Republicans, including the largest group representing gay conservatives, lesbians and transgender

The video, taken from another Twitter user and reposted by Mr. DeSantis, relied heavily on obscure conservative memes.

Richard Barry, a former New Hampshire state lawmaker who attended a rainy Fourth of July breakfast attended by several presidential candidates, said he was anxious to support someone other than Mr. Trump. But Mr. DeSantis has turned him off, he said, citing a criticism that some voters have leveled against Mr. Trump, a sign that Mr. DeSantis is not yet differentiating himself from the former president in a meaningful way.

“He has a street-guy attitude that says, ‘It’s my way or the highway,'” Mr. Barry said of Mr. DeSantis. “He doesn’t listen to people.”

Jazmine Ulloa contributed reporting from Merrimack, NH, Jonathan Swan contributed reporting from Washington and Maggie Haberman contributed reporting from New York.

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