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In South Carolina, Ron DeSantis prepares a last stand – and a way out


By Steve Contorno and Kit Maher, CNN

Lexington, South Carolina (CNN) — With most of the political world closely watching New Hampshire this weekend, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis instead spent Saturday 900 miles away in South Carolina, laying the groundwork for his presidential campaign’s last stand.

“I’m asking for your support as we get into this primary next month,” DeSantis told supporters at a Florence restaurant. “I’ll be a candidate that will be able to bring our party together up and down the ballot, just like I did in Florida. I will always be a candidate that you can be proud of. As president, I will get the job done.”

In a marker of the confusion surrounding his unclear path forward, DeSantis’ campaign late Saturday was still scrambling to figure out which state their candidate would appear in on Sunday. The scheduling fluctuations resulted in DeSantis abruptly canceling plans to appear Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union” and NBC’s “Meet the Press.” His campaign quickly chimed in publicly to end speculation about his political future to note that DeSantis will appear in New Hampshire on Sunday.

Yet, even as he soldiers on, DeSantis increasingly sounds like a candidate wrestling with his relevancy. In the days following his distant second-place finish in Iowa, DeSantis has lashed out at Fox News, bemoaned the money spent against him, blamed cold weather and “very low” enthusiasm for his performance, trivialized the sway of the Hawkeye State Republicans who endorsed him, conceded former President Donald Trump’s edge going forward, admitted his media strategy failed, and for the first time suggested what it would take for him to end his White House bid.

“As long as I’m in the hunt, that tells me that I’m seeing a pathway,” he said Friday night. “The minute I don’t, then I’m not just going to do this just for my health.”

His public journey through the seven stages of grief comes as his Republican rivals have all but dismissed his candidacy as an afterthought.

Trump recently predicted on his social media site that DeSantis “will SOON be out of money and dropping out of the race for President.” Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said she was “no longer focused on” DeSantis after Iowa.

“He’s closer to zero than he is to me,” she said. “He’s invisible in New Hampshire. He’s invisible in South Carolina. We’re focused on Trump. That’s the key.”

DeSantis, though, is intensely focused on Haley in South Carolina, where she served as governor from 2011 to 2017. In appearances around the Palmetto State this week, DeSantis has contended she’s not conservative enough for the state and has asked the audience to list her accomplishments. He has asserted no one can.

Fourth-grade teacher Regina Wasiluk took issue with that suggestion. She showed up to DeSantis’ Lexington event to defend Haley’s record on education when he once again queried his crowd.

After a brief exchange, DeSantis shut her down.

“This isn’t your show, ma’am,” he said.

Wasiluk said after the experience she wouldn’t vote for DeSantis if he’s the GOP nominee.

“I was very upset that I didn’t bring my phone so that I can share it with other people who feel the same way that I do,” she said.

South Carolina’s February 24 primary is still more than a month away and comes after the Nevada caucuses. But coming just nine days before Super Tuesday, when the race expands into a national contest, the state typically turns into “the graveyard of a lot of campaigns and the booster rocket to at least one,” said the state’s GOP chairman, Drew McKissick.

“This is your last chance to be able to focus on one state at a time,” McKissick said. “After that, you’ve got to be on the air and on the ground in half a dozen to a dozen states at one time. That’s cost prohibitive, time prohibitive and manpower prohibitive.”

Still, DeSantis’ campaign is not setting expectations for a win here or even a second-place finish. Instead, it appears singularly focused on playing spoiler to Haley on her home turf. The theory behind the strategy is Haley would drop out if she can’t manage a strong performance in the state she once led, though she has given no indication that is the case. The Florida governor is moving much of his campaign here to carry out that mission.

DeSantis himself is not setting expectations, either. He told reporters Saturday, “I’m not a political pundit,” when asked his end goal in South Carolina and whether there’s a district he thinks he can win.

“We’re here. You saw the folks. We get great reception,” DeSantis said, referencing a large crowd at the Myrtle Beach event. “As this thing turns, you know, we’re gonna be in a good situation.”

But DeSantis has stopped short of the scorched-earth offensive it may take to damage Haley. His remarks across three stops Saturday largely touched on familiar themes – his accomplishments in Florida, the scourges of a “woke” culture and the urgency to change course as a country – none of which moved the needle for him in Iowa and New Hampshire.

One attendee in Myrtle Beach asked DeSantis why he hasn’t gained traction from Republicans in 2024 given his track record in Florida – a sign of the skepticism from voters that accompanies worsening odds.

“I got to break through a lot of clutter out there in ways that other candidates don’t,” DeSantis contended. “There’s other candidates that get elevated, and I got to break through the clutter.”

Unclear is how much firepower DeSantis will have to “break through the clutter.” DeSantis’ campaign and supporting super PACs have not aired an ad outside of Iowa since mid-November, and the Hawkeye State did not deliver the result for him that could have led to a fundraising bonanza.

Meanwhile, Haley’s campaign is preparing to launch a $4 million media buy in South Carolina beginning the day of the New Hampshire primary, her campaign manager, Betsy Ankney, told reporters Saturday. Americans for Prosperity Action, which is supporting Haley, also has about $2.3 million booked in the state, according to AdImpact.

Also missing since getting thrashed in Iowa is the swagger of the candidate who once cosplayed as a “Top Gun” pilot to drive home the point he will “never back down from a fight.” DeSantis appeared tired touring his third state this week while keeping up a schedule badly battered by winter storms. Asked by a voter Saturday in Myrtle Beach whom he’d pick as a running mate, DeSantis listlessly batted away the question with a blunt assessment of his standing in the GOP race.

“It’s presumptuous,” he said. “I’ve got eight delegates. Trump’s got 20. You gotta get there.”

A visit to South Carolina four days before New Hampshire votes would seem to necessitate punting on the Granite State – where Trump and Haley are in a heated fight and he is at risk of not reaching the 10% vote threshold needed to earn delegates in the state. Yet, as DeSantis arrived in South Carolina, he published an op-ed in the New Hampshire Journal in which he urged voters to support him.

“Support me in the coming New Hampshire primary,” he wrote, “and I will embody the live free or die spirit as your next president.”

CNN’s Kylie Atwood contributed to this story.

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