Shake-Up by a Desperate DeSantis Opens Wider Path for Haley in New Hampshire

Straining to recover after a bruising defeat in Iowa, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida and his allies moved on Wednesday to shake up his operation yet again, with his super PAC carrying out layoffs and the campaign signaling that it would largely bypass New Hampshire’s primary election next week in favor of competing in South Carolina.

The change in strategy appeared to set up the one-on-one contest in New Hampshire that Nikki Haley has been hoping for against former President Donald J. Trump, who leads in polls but is more vulnerable in the moderate state than in socially conservative Iowa. At the same time, the shift could put new pressure on Ms. Haley in South Carolina, where she once served as governor.

The maneuvering may not ultimately make much of a dent in a race in which Mr. Trump has dominated polling, won the Iowa caucuses on Monday by a staggering 30 percentage points and spent Wednesday in court for one of his many legal cases, where a judge threatened to kick him out for being unruly. But it changed the calculations for his remaining Republican rivals.

As Mr. DeSantis’s team licked its wounds on Wednesday, his super PAC, Never Back Down, trimmed operations in several places, including Nevada. Other staff members were also laid off, including almost the entire online “war room” team, a person with knowledge of the matter said. Those who were cut had their email accounts immediately suspended. It was unclear how many people in all lost their jobs.

Mr. DeSantis also began moving a majority of his campaign staff — a separate group — to South Carolina to prepare for its Feb. 24 primary, according to a senior campaign official, who insisted on anonymity. Rather than schedule more events in New Hampshire this week, Mr. DeSantis will finish his campaigning there on Wednesday, return to Florida and then stump in South Carolina over the weekend, hoping that his conservative message will better align with primary voters.

His campaign on Wednesday framed the decision as a chance to deal a knockout blow to Ms. Haley.

“When Nikki Haley fails to win her home state, she’ll be finished and this will be a two-person race,” Andrew Romeo, a campaign spokesman, said in a statement. “We’re wasting no time in taking the fight directly to Haley on her home turf.”

But the move showed that Mr. DeSantis was all but giving up on competing in New Hampshire, where his poll numbers have been abysmal, trailing in the single digits far behind Mr. Trump and Ms. Haley.

Mr. DeSantis did not address his decision to leave New Hampshire during a speech on Wednesday in Hampton, N.H. — one of his last appearances in the state — and did not take questions from reporters afterward.

It remained uncertain whether he might squeeze in a last-minute New Hampshire stop early next week before the state’s primary on Tuesday, and Mr. Romeo declined to say whether Mr. DeSantis would be there on the day of the election. Neither the governor nor his super PAC has placed an advertisement in New Hampshire since Nov. 18, according to AdImpact, a media-tracking firm.

Ms. Haley’s path in New Hampshire is now clearer. Even after she finished third in Iowa — close behind Mr. DeSantis — Ms. Haley declared that she had accomplished her goal of creating a one-on-one matchup with the former president.

“When you look at how we’re doing in New Hampshire, in South Carolina and beyond, I can safely say tonight Iowa made this Republican primary a two-person race,” she said after votes were tallied on Monday.

Olivia Perez-Cubas, a spokeswoman for Ms. Haley, responded to Mr. DeSantis’s move with a quip: “South Carolina is a great state. We hope they enjoy their vacation time here.”

Since December, Ms. Haley and her allies have pointed to the possibility of a one-on-one race in New Hampshire as an opportunity for an outright victory there.

Internal polling conducted last month in the state by Americans for Prosperity Action, a super PAC founded by the billionaire Koch family that is backing Ms. Haley’s campaign, found that in a full field of Republican candidates, she trailed Mr. Trump by 45 percent to 32 percent.

But in a head-to-head matchup between Ms. Haley and Mr. Trump, without Mr. DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy or Chris Christie — both of whom have since left the race — the polling found Ms. Haley in a statistical tie with Mr. Trump, 48 percent to 45 percent.

Still, Mr. DeSantis’s apparent withdrawal from New Hampshire is not guaranteed to be good news for her. Supporters of Mr. DeSantis tend to be more conservative than Ms. Haley’s moderate-leaning coalition, so those who jump ship from the Florida governor might vote for Mr. Trump instead.

CBS News earlier reported Mr. DeSantis’s shift toward South Carolina.

Mr. DeSantis was denied his best chance at exposure in New Hampshire when Ms. Haley turned down two debates scheduled for Thursday and Sunday. Even the weather seemed to be against him there. A snowstorm and icy roads forced him to cancel two town halls in rural parts of the state on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, while Ms. Haley and Mr. Trump were able to go through with their events.

Mr. Trump was set to return to New Hampshire on Wednesday evening. He spent the morning in a Manhattan courthouse for his defamation trial, where the writer E. Jean Carroll testified that Mr. Trump had “shattered my reputation” by accusing her of lying about her claim that he raped her in a department store dressing room decades ago. Mr. Trump’s disclaiming comments, loud enough for jurors to hear, prompted the judge in the case to threaten to throw him out of the room.

After Wednesday, Mr. DeSantis’s presence in New Hampshire this week will be even lighter than that of Representative Dean Phillips of Minnesota, who is running a long-shot campaign against President Biden for the Democratic nomination. Mr. Phillips has several more campaign events planned in the state.

Even before it was clear that Mr. DeSantis was mostly giving up on New Hampshire, his allies were trying to lower expectations.

Jason Osborne, the majority leader of New Hampshire’s House of Representatives, who has endorsed Mr. DeSantis, said in an interview on Tuesday that the Florida governor had “nothing to lose” in New Hampshire.

“The expectations are already set so low,” Mr. Osborne said. “Anything he does will be over expectations. There’s only upside here.”

Never Back Down’s field operation in South Carolina is not nearly as extensive as the one it spent heavily to create in Iowa, where Mr. DeSantis staked many of his hopes and allowed the super PAC to take over many of the responsibilities of a traditional campaign.

The group has burned through cash, spending at least $30 million on its push to reach voters in person through door-knocking and canvassing in early-primary states, according to a person with knowledge of its efforts — a figure that does not include additional tens of millions in television advertising.

Given that ambitious investment, Mr. DeSantis’s defeat on Monday to Mr. Trump was all the more devastating, and raised urgent new questions about how long his operation could financially sustain a bid and attract new donors.

One of those who was laid off at Never Back Down, George Andrews, who had been assigned as a caucus precinct operations director in Iowa but also listed himself on LinkedIn as a state director in California, posted on the career website that he had been let go.

“As of 6 am this morning, I learned I am now a free agent due to budget cuts beyond my control,” Mr. Andrews wrote in a post on LinkedIn.

“I completely understand why this had to happen, harbor no ill will, and wish my former team great success as they attempt to bring back sanity to our party,” he wrote. “What they are trying to accomplish for America is much greater than my termination as an individual employee.”

An official with the group appeared to confirm the layoffs, saying that those affected were being paid through the end of January. The official, who did not speak on the record, added that the group was “evaluating and paring down” other consultants, vendors and some staff members who had been focused on various aspects of the group’s work.

Scott Wagner, the chief executive of Never Back Down, issued a statement saying that the group continued to host events for Mr. DeSantis, but he did not address the question of layoffs.

“Never Back Down continues to host a slew of events on the ground for Gov. DeSantis,” Mr. Wagner said. “We’ve mobilized several members of our robust Iowa team over to the other early primary states to help in these efforts.”

Paul Mondello, 81, of Londonderry, who was at an event for Mr. DeSantis in Derry on Wednesday, said it was “kind of offensive to some degree” that the governor was moving on from New Hampshire, but it would not shake his resolve to vote for him.

“For him to leave, it is a little bit of a punch,” Mr. Mondello said. “I don’t think you should give up.”

Nick Corasaniti and Jonathan Swan contributed reporting.

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