DeSantis pushes past embarrassing campaign start and outlines travel schedule for early state visits

The 44-year-old governor formally launched his campaign Wednesday during an online conversation with Twitter CEO Elon Musk, but the audio stream crashed repeatedly

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a political roundtable, Friday, May 19, 2023, in Bedford, N.H.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a political roundtable, Friday, May 19, 2023, in Bedford, N.H.Robert F. Bukaty (AP)
Concord - 25 May 2023 - 22:26

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday sought to push past an embarrassing beginning to his presidential campaign, outlining an aggressive travel schedule as his allies insisted they remain well funded and well positioned for a long Republican primary fight ahead.

While DeSantis supporters privately acknowledged the bungled announcement was an unwelcome distraction, there was a broad sense — even among some Republican critics — that it would likely have limited long-term political consequences, if any at all.

“Do they wish they could do it over again? Probably,” said David Oman, who managed two top-tier presidential campaigns in Iowa. “Will we be talking about it in 10 days? Probably not.”

DeSantis formally launched his campaign Wednesday night during an online conversation with Twitter CEO Elon Musk. But the audio stream crashed repeatedly, making it difficult for most users to hear the announcement in real time.

On Thursday, the Republican governor announced plans for a three-state blitz next week featuring at least a dozen stops. He’s scheduled to campaign Tuesday and Wednesday in Iowa before a trip to New Hampshire on Thursday and South Carolina on Friday.

“We are laser-focused on taking Gov. DeSantis’ forward-thinking message for restoring America to every potential voter in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina,” campaign manager Generra Peck said. “Our campaign is committed to putting in the time to win these early nominating states. No one will work harder than Gov. DeSantis to share his vision with the country — he has only begun to fight.”

DeSantis is casting himself as the only legitimate Republican rival in the GOP’s crowded primary to former President Donald Trump, who holds a big lead in early polls along with a firm grip on a significant portion of the GOP’s passionate base.

Yet Trump is plagued by his own baggage, which includes multiple legal threats and a fixation on his 2020 election loss.

Meanwhile, DeSantis’ team opens the campaign with tens of millions of dollars in the bank. A spokesman said the campaign raised $1 million in the first hour after Wednesday’s announcement, but declined to provide an updated total Thursday. An adviser to DeSantis’ allied super PAC said the group begins with $33 million in the bank and 30 full-time paid staff already in place across the first four states on the presidential primary calendar, with many more hires already planned for the subsequent 14 states to hold primary contests.

No other Republican presidential candidate has such an infrastructure in place, including Trump. His aides declined to say how many staff he has in early states. “The only numbers we’ll talk about are the huge leads President Trump is racking up in the early states,” said spokesman Steven Cheung.

But as DeSantis tried to project confidence Thursday, the two-term governor faced nagging questions about his rocky rollout during a conservative media tour.

“I was just kind of sitting in Tallahassee, like I didn’t really know what was going on because Twitter handles all of that,” DeSantis told conservative commentator Glenn Beck. “They were just getting so many people, above and beyond what they ever gotten, that I think it kind of melted the servers.”

While Trump’s team piled on with gleeful mocking — “a #DeSaster of epic proportions,” Donald Trump Jr. wrote on Truth Social — many Republican officials, donors and early state activists suggested there would be few long-term consequences.

“Look, I like Elon Musk, but apparently he fired one too many IT guys,” New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a 2024 Republican presidential prospect himself and a periodic DeSantis critic, said on ABC’s “The View.” “You can’t blame Ron DeSantis for that.”

“I mean, if Elon Musk told me, ‘We’re going to stream it,’ I’d be like, ‘Yeah, this guy knows what he’s doing.’ It didn’t work,” Sununu added. “Ron’s job was to deliver the speech and make the points. I think he did a pretty good job of that.”

Republican strategist Terry Sullivan, who managed Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign, suggested that DeSantis is well positioned to overcome an early stumble.

“Big presidential campaign announcements are only about getting a short-term bounce (in the polls) and raising money online,” Sullivan said. “DeSantis doesn’t need either of those. He just needed to get in the race and start campaigning. Mission accomplished.”

Meanwhile, DeSantis was balancing his presidential ambitions with his day job.

On his first full day as an announced presidential candidate, the Florida governor signed bills to give Florida residents tax breaks. They ranged from sales tax holidays on hurricane and school supplies to permanent exemptions for baby and toddler needs like diapers. He also approved a one-year tax exemption on gas stoves — a direct shot at Democrats who have raised health concerns about the appliances.

Much of the buzz beyond Florida remained focused on the bungled announcement.

Former New Hampshire GOP Chair Jennifer Horn described DeSantis’ rollout as an “embarrassing missed opportunity.” The only potential longer-term challenge, she said, was that it serves as “a gift to Donald Trump,” who will almost certainly ensure that it’s not quickly forgotten.

There remained “a high level of interest” in DeSantis, according to New Hampshire Republican Party Chair Chris Ager. He said multiple Republican Party groups are requesting DeSantis to speak at their events.

“I think it was a pretty bold move to try something totally new in an announcement,” Ager said.

And while early polls show Trump with a wide lead over DeSantis among New Hampshire primary voters, Ager said a lot can change over time.

“I fully expect the race will tighten up,” he said. “Gov. DeSantis is definitely a serious and legitimate contender for the top spot.”

Republican donor and vocal Trump critic Eric Levine said there was little chatter in the donor community about DeSantis’ stumble out of the gate. He said the Florida governor remains one of his top three candidates.

“Nobody’s leaving him because of it. Whether or not he’s lost a couple of people that might have jumped on the bandwagon had it been better, I don’t know,” Levine said. “Now, it’s a marathon from now until Iowa.”

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