Ron DeSantis has faced a flurry of negative headlines in recent weeks as his poll numbers have declined and his campaign sheds staff.
But his supporters and other insiders say that it is too early to count out the Florida governor as he prepares to take the debate stage in Milwaukee on Wednesday. With former president Donald Trump electing to sit out of the first debate, Mr DeSantis will likely be the subject of most attacks given that he has consistently polled in second place behind the former president.
A recent NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll found that 42 per cent of Iowa caucus-goers prefer the former president as their first choice, with Mr DeSantis in a distant second at 19 per cent. At the same time, a combined 57 per cent of poll respondents said that the party needed new leadership, with 38 per cent of those caucus goers listing Mr DeSantis as their first choice.
With its heavy churchgoing population, Iowa offers Mr DeSantis his best position to beat Mr Trump, given his policies on attacking “wokeness” and restricting how sexual orientation, gender identity and race are taught in schools, as well as his signing of a six-week abortion ban.
At the same time, he’s faced negative headlines as his campaign has not raised as much money as Mr Trump. And last week, The New York Times reported on a memo from Never Back Down, a pro-DeSantis super PAC, that outlined a plan for Mr DeSantis to focus on defending the former president while also attacking former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy.
But Ken Cuccinelli, the founder of Never Back Down, told The Independent that the memo was only advice since super PACs cannot coordinate with candidates. He also noted how there is still an opening for Mr DeSantis.
“And in New Hampshire and Iowa, over half of Republican voters do not want Trump to be the nominee. And DeSantis continues to be in the strong position of the alternative,” he said. Mr Cuccinelli said that conservatives would not lose anything should they defect from Mr Trump to Mr DeSantis, noting how he worked in the Trump administration but now supports DeSantis.
“Going to DeSantis, in fact, you gain [a] more consistent, principled approach and a track record of success.”
Mr Cuccinelli added that Never Back Down had contacted around 200,000 households in Iowa, along with rounding up 40 endorsements from state legislators. He said that those legislators would not waste their time if they didn’t truly support Mr DeSantis.
“The people in our state state legislatures are not kamikaze pilots,” Mr Cuccinelli said.
Many of Mr DeSantis’s most ardent supporters, including Mr Cuccinelli, backed Sen Ted Cruz in 2016 when the Texas Republican beat Mr Trump in the Hawkeye State. Bob Vander Plaats, the head of the Iowa Family Leader who supported Mr Cruz in 2016 but has yet to endorse, toldThe Independent in an interview last week that Mr DeSantis still has an opportunity to break through.
“I think it'd be a big mistake to count him out,” he said. Mr Vander Plaats, who has expressed concern that Mr Trump could cost Republicans the 2024 general election, said that currently, Iowa voters are exploring different presidential candidates before the 15 January caucus.
“But they break late,” he said. “So I would worry much more around Thanksgiving time, first of December than I would at state fair time and Labor Day.”
Mr Cuccinelli said that Mr DeSantis offers Republicans an opportunity to do something new and noted how Mr Trump does not have the same appeal he did in the past.
“People appreciated Trump arguing with the media,” he said. “There's name-calling, and he’s still name-calling. And frankly, his name-calling has dropped off. And he isn't as energetic. He isn't as present. He's getting older. And DeSantis is running circles around him.”
Not everyone is convinced Mr DeSantis could make a comeback though. Eric Levine, a Republican fundraiser, said that people who supported Mr DeSantis earlier have told him that they are concerned.
“He's been running and (they) are worried that it's not going anywhere,” he told The Independent. “And I'm unaware of anybody who was not previously on the DeSantis bandwagon who were saying, ‘I’ve got to join the guy.’”
Mr Levine said that the debate will be his last opportunity to reintroduce himself to the electorate.
“And if that falls flat, he may well be done,” he said.
Specifically, Mr Levine criticised Mr DeSantis’s focus on attacking Disney in response to legislation he signed restricting how gender identity and sexual orientation are taught in schools, and his comments calling the war in Ukraine a “territorial dispute.”
“I don't think anyone has a sense that he understands at all. How to deal with Putin or Xi [Jinping] or the Ayatollah, or Kim Jong Un.”
But Mr Cuccinelli said that the debate stage will offer Mr DeSantis the opportunity to present himself to a larger audience.
“Yes, he has high name ID. Yes, he has high favourables,” he said. “But it doesn't have the depth of connection that Trump has because people feel after eight years that they know him even if they've never met him."
Mr DeSantis will take the stage with a slew of other candidates, including not just Mr Ramaswamy and Mr Christie, but also North Dakota Gov Doug Burgum, former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson and Sen Tim Scott (R-SC).
Mr Levine said that he will be watching to see if anyone else breaks out during the debate in hopes that someone can beat Mr Trump.
“I'm really hoping that somebody distinguishes themselves and becomes the Trump alternative,” he said.