(Bloomberg) -- Ron DeSantis’s team remained confident he’s competitively positioned to take on former President Donald Trump in the Republican primaries as the Florida governor sought to energize his campaign at an event in his home state.
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DeSantis, who entered the race as Trump’s top challenger, has slipped in the polls and now is trying to fend off former US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, who is surging on the strength of her performance in the GOP presidential contenders’ debates.
At the third debate on Nov. 8, DeSantis is likely to step up attacks on Haley, focusing on her record on China while she was governor of South Carolina, according to a person with knowledge of the strategy.
DeSantis rehearsed his line of argument at a gathering of Republican candidates near Orlando on Saturday, saying he’d “disentangle” the US economy from China.
“I don’t want them purchasing foreign land in Iowa,” he said. “I don’t want them purchasing land near military bases in South Carolina.”
He won applause for pledging to “build the border wall, and we are going to have countries like Mexico pay for it” — a swipe at Trump for failing to make good on a promise from his 2016 presidential campaign.
Trump, who leads the Republican field by a wide margin, is scheduled to address the event later Saturday, a rarity for the front-runner, who has largely avoided forums that give his lower-polling challengers equal billing.
Trump is seeking to deliver a decisive blow to his closest rivals in Iowa, where voters will caucus in January. He leads DeSantis by almost 46 percentage points in a RealClearPolitics average of national voter preference polls.
Yet the DeSantis team’s internal polling shows that hard support for Trump — voters in the first three early voting states who lean toward Trump or support him — has declined from 33% in May to 17% in October, according to the person familiar with the DeSantis campaign’s strategy.
Despite the risk that major donors will stay on the sidelines as Haley emerges as a viable Trump alternative, the campaign is optimistic that it has the funding to stay in the race past the early voting states, the person said.
DeSantis on Saturday addressed Florida Republicans who have twice sent him to the governor’s mansion, helping propel him onto the national stage.
“Florida has shown the way forward for the Republican Party,” DeSantis said. “We show how it can be done.”
While the next debate is in Miami, DeSantis faces another threat on his home turf.
Trump has spent much of the last few weeks in Florida, hosting a fundraiser at his Mar-a-Lago club that brought in more than $5 million in one night last week, according to a person familiar who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Meanwhile, DeSantis recently raised money in Miami and Fort Lauderdale. He has two events planned on Thursday, the day after the third debate.
Trump’s team also made calls ahead of Saturday’s Florida Freedom Summit to convince state legislators and local officials to flip their support from DeSantis to Trump, according to Miami-Dade Commissioner Kevin Marino Cabrera, a campaign surrogate for the former president.
DeSantis has ramped up campaigning in New Hampshire, where the poll average shows him in third place behind Trump and Haley.
He has sought to beef up his policy portfolio in recent weeks, delivering a foreign-policy speech in Washington last week. The DeSantis and Haley campaigns have traded barbs as global crises in Ukraine and the Middle East presented an opportunity for the former UN ambassador to showcase her foreign policy experience.
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