News USA DeSantis is approaching the launch of his presidential campaign far from his...

DeSantis is approaching the launch of his presidential campaign far from his peak popularity

(CNN) — Once seen as climbing into a presidential campaign with the wind in his favor, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis finds himself on the brink of an announcement many of his supporters wished were behind him.

DeSantis is preparing to launch his White House bid before the end of the month, according to two sources with knowledge of the planning. His political operation is currently moving to a new headquarters in Tallahassee, while a closely aligned super PAC (political action committee) with the Florida Republican builds a national campaign out of Atlanta. Next week, he’s meeting top fundraisers in South Florida, where he’s expected to tell them it’s time to start ordering checks from his wealthy friends.

Although some donors complain about his recent performance and worry that he is already badly damaged by repeated attacks by Donald Trump, within DeSantis’ insular team of trusted advisers, his presidential campaign rollout is going according to plan. DeSantis vowed that he would not make a decision on the race until the state adjourned its legislative session. That ended earlier this month, and DeSantis is finalizing the state budget and touring the state signing his conservative political victories into law.

He is about to enter the race with as much money behind him, if not more, than anyone in the race not named Trump, with the intention of breaking fundraising records the day he enters the race, he previously reported. CNN. Turnout for his rallies, many of them in red-hot parts of the country where Trump has dominated, is remarkably high, and his appearance at local GOP fundraisers across the country helped raise more than $4.2 million in two months. Meanwhile, campaign construction has been going on for weeks without a nominee, and while Trump currently holds a solid lead in the GOP primary polls, DeSantis survived the mudslide without losing his status as the frontrunner. rival of the former president.

“The infrastructure is ready to go,” said Nick Iarossi, a Tallahassee lobbyist close to DeSantis. “There will be no ramp up. Everyone is eager to get started and deal with the attacks and the narratives. But you can’t rule someone out who hasn’t started. Trump tried to kill him in the cradle and it didn’t work.”

But the lofty expectations surrounding his presidential bid have leveled off dramatically since DeSantis swept a stunning re-election victory in Florida last fall. He is about to jump into the 2024 race in a far more shaky position than most Republicans had imagined when the New York Post declared him “DeFUTURE.”

As he introduces himself to Republican voters across the country, DeSantis presents his record in Florida as a model for a national platform. But the biggest questions now center on DeSantis himself and whether he has the strength to go all the way and compete with Trump.

“Did it peak in January?” a Republican operative and veteran of several Florida races asked aloud, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid alienating DeSantis’ team. “Now he must prove that he didn’t do it.”

Mel Sembler, a longtime Florida-based Republican donor seeking an alternative to Trump, said he remains “crazy about” DeSantis but worries he has lost his window.

“I think he’s been focused on his re-election and focused on having an impact in Florida,” Sembler said. “If you check your polls, you might decide to wait four years.”

DeSantis, 44, would enter the race for the Republican nomination without a circle of long-time trusted advisers with deep knowledge of presidential politics. Even as he is about to enter the primary, his political operation continues to work to fill key positions in the fledgling campaign.

Bryan Griffin, a relatively recent addition to his executive office, announced Monday that he was stepping down as press secretary, and a source said he was expected to join the campaign. Meanwhile, Phil Cox, a veteran Republican strategist who joined the governor’s team to oversee his re-election campaign and was expected to be a key figure in his future efforts, is no longer near the helm of DeSantis’ political operation, they said. people familiar with the matter.

Cox did not respond to a request for comment. A source with knowledge of his role at Never Back Down, a super PAC that supports DeSantis’s political aspirations, described him as an “unpaid consultant.” Generra Peck, who once worked with Cox and served as DeSantis’ reelection campaign manager, is expected to assume the same role in his presidential campaign.

DeSantis, who keeps a notoriously close circle and is generally mistrustful of Beltway operatives, is wary of growing up too quickly, a source close to the campaign told CNN. He has taken note of past presidential efforts that saw resources sucked into high-priced consultants and subcontractors who find work every cycle, regardless of outcome.

“He is looking for people who are not only aligned with him in politics, but people who are serious about the mission,” the source said. “He believes he is on a mission from God, and he wants people to give up their lives for the next year, work 18 hour days and leave their families behind to go change the world.”

Never Back Down has worked effectively as a campaign on hold. The organization has deployed staff to the first four candidate states and is rapidly expanding to include the first 18 states in anticipation of a protracted primary battle with Trump. On Saturday, the super PAC arrived at Rep. Randy Feenstra’s picnic, where DeSantis was the main guest, on the inaugural “DeSantis for President” bus ride and the group lined the entrance with “DeSantis ’24” signs.

The challenges of the future campaign

But simmering tensions between the group and the governor’s aides in Tallahassee shed light on the challenges that lie ahead for the nascent political operation.

For his part, DeSantis has recently signaled to supporters and donors that he has heard concerns about his willingness to take on Trump. DeSantis recently met with many of the party’s biggest donors over the course of several gatherings at the governor’s mansion, where they met with his staff and received a presentation intended as the outline of a speech to voters, according to a source with knowledge. of the meetings. Although he resisted the general press for a long time, his political operation has recently approached the national media and the local journalists he visits.

Before his visit to the state of Iowa, he also fielded three dozen endorsements from state legislators. It was the result of a concerted effort to rally more local support after appearing outdone by Trump last month, when several Florida House Republicans endorsed the former president before and after DeSantis’ planned visit to Washington.

Although he continues to dodge Trump’s attacks, DeSantis has framed the stakes in the upcoming primaries in terms that make it clearer how he intends to take on the former president.

“If we make 2024 a referendum on Joe Biden and his failures and offer a positive alternative for the future of this country, the Republicans will win across the board,” DeSantis told Iowa caucus voters at Sioux Center. “If we don’t do that, if we get distracted, if we focus on past elections or other side issues, then I think the Democrats are going to beat us again and I think it’s going to be very hard to come back from that loss.”

Later that day, DeSantis appeared to outdo Trump, making an unannounced visit to a Des Moines barbecue; minutes from where the former president planned to hold a rally before he canceled due to the threat of weather. He and his wife, Casey, slipped into a crowd that had quickly assembled for a last-minute meeting, and the meeting was quickly spread on social media by their allies.

It was just a small detour on his way out of Iowa on Saturday night, but the 20-minute layover seemed to trigger a collective sigh of relief among supporters who were eagerly waiting for DeSantis to prove he was up to the challenge.

“He reminded many that when he is able to commit, this is going to be a very different race,” said a Republican consultant who asked not to be named.

A slow makeover

After receiving criticism for immediately withdrawing from events after speaking, DeSantis now signs autographs and takes photos with attendees long after his show ends. During an event Saturday with Iowa Republicans in Cedar Rapids, DeSantis was joined by her wife, Casey DeSantis, who spoke of her husband as a father and presented a softer image of the conservative known for his brash style and tough demeanor. .

The makeover, however, is still a work in progress. Asked by Iowa GOP Chairman Jeff Kaufmann during Saturday night’s rally about what makes him laugh and what makes him cry, DeSantis replied dryly: “Probably the kids in both cases,” before listing with naturally their ages.

But at an event in Peoria, Illinois, on Friday, state Rep. Dan Caulkins said he noticed a marked change in the governor’s demeanor from an appearance in the state earlier this year, which Caulkins said “wasn’t really that inspiring.” .”

“Obviously, I think he’s gotten the message that he has to be more accessible, that he has to be with people and connect with people,” Caulkins said. “It’s hard to get onstage behind a list and really connect. I saw that difference today, where he made a conscious effort to go out and talk to people, shake hands, take pictures, and I think he’s becoming a better politician”.

— CNN’s Kit Maher contributed to this report.

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