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New Hampshire votes Tuesday. So why did DeSantis spend the weekend in South Carolina?

Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a campaign event at Hudson's Smokehouse BBQ, Saturday in Lexington, S.C.
Sean Rayford
/
AP
Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a campaign event at Hudson's Smokehouse BBQ, Saturday in Lexington, S.C.

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. – In the final weekend of campaigning before New Hampshire's first in the nation Republican presidential primary, voters bundled up and braved the cold to see Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

But instead of a retail stop in Nashua, N.H., or a town hall in Manchester on Saturday, DeSantis met hundreds of people for a day of campaigning that started in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

"Well when I got off the plane I didn't know whether I was in South Carolina or New Hampshire because it was 30 degrees," he joked.

It's unseasonably chilly in Myrtle Beach, and unusual to have a major candidate appear in South Carolina in the final days before the contest in New Hampshire.

There's just too many conservative voters here for someone like Nikki Haley to win the state"

After finishing second place in the Iowa caucus last week, DeSantis is polling in the single digits in New Hampshire – far behind former president Donald Trump and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley – and could walk away without earning a single delegate needed to eventually secure the Republican nomination.

There are a few other contests in the coming weeks, but DeSantis is all in on the first in the south primary that will come at the end of February.

"I think clearly if you look at this constituency, this is a great constituency for me," he told reporters Saturday. "It's a veteran heavy state, a military heavy state. It's a conservative state."

More explicitly, DeSantis said there's an opening for him to do well against Haley.

"There's just too many conservative voters here for someone like Nikki Haley to win the state," he added.

Under the DeSantis campaign theory of the case, targeting the former South Carolina governor and beating her would force her out of the race and set up a true head to head against Trump before 16 states vote on Super Tuesday in early March.

And given Trump's indictments and concerns that President Biden could beat Trump for a second time, winning this state would be his best shot to convince primary voters he's a better option.

But like the New Hampshire contest this week, DeSantis is polling in third place and risks coming away empty handed in South Carolina, too.

'Not this year'

Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis greets people during a campaign event at The Drive-In on Saturday in Florence, S.C.
Sean Rayford / AP
/
AP
Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis greets people during a campaign event at The Drive-In on Saturday in Florence, S.C.

It's not that Republican primary voters don't like Ron DeSantis – there's a lot of overlap in ideology and support of his base and that of Donald Trump.

"We have all good candidates, I'd vote for the top three," Jim Bolig of Myrtle Beach said. "I think former President Trump has a lot going for him."

"But I think they need to unite the three of them and pull it together, because as Republicans were getting whooped," he added.

Bolig is one of many people who attended DeSantis events in South Carolina over the weekend who told NPR they thought he would make a great president – just not when Trump is running.

"President Trump's already been there, done that, and he showed leadership," Bolig explained.

That sentiment was echoed by Ken Coleman.

"Unfortunately, I don't think it's his time," he said of DeSantis before the event. "Not this year."

At the end of the program, Coleman got to ask DeSantis about the Southern border and combatting illegal immigration. All day, the crowds cheered at mentions of cutting government spending, fighting diversity, equity and inclusion programs at colleges and universities and DeSantis' other plans for America.

"He's got a great reputation among conservatives," Coleman said of DeSantis.
"I think right now it's just a little premature."

National and state level polls still show Donald Trump with a commanding lead in the primary. And while DeSantis trekked from New Hampshire to South Carolina, the Palmetto State's top Republicans, including Sen. Tim Scott, started the weekend in New Hampshire campaigning for Trump.

Scott, the onetime presidential candidate who previously said Trump could not win the 2024 general election, endorsed the former president at a rally, saying "we need Donald Trump."

DeSantis says he's in it for the long haul and has a path to the nomination. But even he seems to realize that path doesn't run through South Carolina – yet.

After a Saturday spent in restaurants across South Carolina, DeSantis canceled major TV appearances on Sunday to fly back to the Granite State and pick up campaigning where voters will fill out a ballot on Tuesday.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Stephen Fowler
Stephen Fowler is a political reporter with NPR's Washington Desk and will be covering the 2024 election based in the South. Before joining NPR, he spent more than seven years at Georgia Public Broadcasting as its political reporter and host of the Battleground: Ballot Box podcast, which covered voting rights and legal fallout from the 2020 presidential election, the evolution of the Republican Party and other changes driving Georgia's growing prominence in American politics. His reporting has appeared everywhere from the Center for Public Integrity and the Columbia Journalism Review to the PBS NewsHour and ProPublica.