DURHAM, N.H. — Nearly 100 people gathered to hear Ron DeSantis’ updated pitch for the Republican presidential nomination in the basement of a shared-office center in Windham, New Hampshire, Friday night.
After half a year on the campaign trail, the Florida governor is clearly more comfortable than he was during his early foray into this state in June, mixing light humor in with policy proposals like shooting border-crossers. When he first started campaigning here, he didn’t honor the tradition of taking questions from the stage. On Friday, he fielded query after query for long enough that the crowd, most of whom were not given chairs, thinned to about half its original size.
The question DeSantis had the most difficulty answering is one that has confounded the rest of former President Donald Trump’s rivals for the GOP nomination: “What’s your strategy to beat Trump?” a man in the audience asked.
“So, here’s the thing, I think, like, you know, you’ve got to ask yourself on these polls — in November of 2022, we were supposed to have this big red wave, and that crashed and burned. It didn’t happen,” DeSantis said. “You look at the polls on my race, people said I was going to win, but a lot of them were like a week out, 5 points, 6 points. I won by 20.”
He went on to contend that the media is propping up Trump, that President Joe Biden might not be the Democratic nominee and that “narrative” will “collide with reality” when Iowa voters caucus on Jan. 15.
But the reality here is the roughly 4,000 people who showed up to the University of New Hampshire’s ice hockey arena Saturday to shower Trump with applause, scream their approval and affirm that they will vote for him in the Jan. 23 primary.
“We love you! We love you! We love you!” the MAGA base chanted at Trump almost an hour into his remarks.
They cheered when he promised, in a relatively new proposal, to “indemnify all police officers” against “being destroyed by the radical left for taking strong actions against crime.”
He even picked up some new support at a rally that was his biggest — and perhaps his last — of the year in the state. Chuck Morse, a gubernatorial candidate who lost his 2022 Senate primary after failing to gain Trump’s endorsement, stood behind a “Make America Great Again”-branded lectern before Trump arrived and pledged his loyalty to the former president.
“We need to secure the northern and the southern borders. We need to get the economy back on track for working families hit hard by inflation. And we need to put America first when it comes to producing energy,” he said of what he hears from voters across the state. “We can do all these things by putting Joe Biden back in his basement and getting Donald Trump back into the Oval Office.”
The differences in energy and interest between Trump and the pack are evident across the state, echoing his dominance in polls here.
When Gov. Chris Sununu, the most powerful elected Republican in the state, endorsed former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley earlier in the week, they drew between 200 and 300 supporters to a more modest venue in Manchester. For DeSantis and Haley, who are running second and third, respectively, in national polls, the most immediate challenge is to break away from each other.
Kevin Butterworth, a semiretired 70-year-old from Manchester, saw DeSantis for the first time Friday night and liked what he heard.
“He’s very impressive,” Butterworth, who wants to see Trump stopped in the primary, said of DeSantis. “He knows what he’s doing. If he was elected president, he would be a good president.”
But Butterworth, who went to Haley’s event earlier in the week, said he isn’t sold yet.
“It’s between Nikki and DeSantis,” he said. “I find both formidable as a replacement to what we have now and Trump. I mean, either one would do it.”
While anti-Trump Republicans are still trying to pick their horse, the former president has pivoted much of his rhetoric to the general election. Susie Wiles, senior adviser to the Trump campaign, said that his team will begin to focus more completely on the general election following the Super Tuesday primaries in March if all goes according to plan.
She also said that because Trump may have to spend time off the trail in court beginning in March, the plan is to make that “not as critical a time by doing our jobs ahead of time and immediately after.”
On Saturday, Trump blamed Biden for everything from inflation to the Israel-Hamas war. And, citing a comment by Russian President Vladimir Putin, he said that it is Biden and Democrats — not him — who represent a threat to democracy almost three years after his backers stormed the Capitol in a failed attempt to overturn his 2020 loss.
“We talk about democracy,” Trump said before alluding to the criminal charges he faces in four separate federal and state cases, “but the whole world is watching the persecution of a political opponent that’s kicking his a–.”
Trump also had favorable comments for other autocratic leaders, pointing to Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s praise for him and saying that Kim Jong Un in North Korea is a “nice” person.
Most polls show a close contest between Trump and Biden with nearly a year before Election Day.
Still, Trump chided his Republican opponents enough to remind voters here that he still needs their help to win the primary.
“With Nikki, they talk about the surge, and with DeSanctimonious, the talk about the bounce,” Trump said, using a nickname for DeSantis. “The only one that had a surge and the only one that had a bounce is Trump.”
He again called former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie a “fat pig.” Christie is running third, behind Haley and in front of DeSantis, in New Hampshire, but he has not campaigned in Iowa.
As was the case with DeSantis, Trump worked against the clock. An hour into his speech, audience members began to file out of the arena. Twenty minutes later, as he spoke over music as if reciting lines for a campaign ad, little more than half the crowd remained. Trump kept going, and the hard-core faithful stuck around to the end.
“Trump is going to kick a– and he’s going to come back and fix everything,” Effingham resident Stacy Brown, 55, said at the conclusion of what was her first Trump rally. “I’d have a hard time supporting anyone else.”
Several other attendees said in interviews with NBC News they have no interest in the other Republicans.
“He’s the best candidate to rule this country,” said Jackueline Chaves of Bedford. “I think that the way he thinks, his attitude, he’s just powerful, that’s it.”