LACONIA, N.H. — Ron DeSantis arrived in Laconia right on schedule Thursday morning, striding onto the stage in his black cowboy boots and slightly distressed blue jeans while flashing a smile that looked like the grimacing emoji.
The crowd at VFW Post 1670 had gathered to see DeSantis, the newest Republican presidential hopeful, deliver a 45-minute speech laced with the usual bits of red meat: No more “transgender ideology” in schools and athletics. No more “sex change operations for kids.” No more elites living “high on the hog” in Washington.
But the Florida governor, known for his wooden demeanor and sometimes unusual behavior, also softened some of his edges. He did not make reference to wielding his executive power to ram through an ultraconservative agenda in Florida, despite winning under 60% of the vote in his gubernatorial reelection. He didn’t mention the six-week abortion ban he signed into law. He claimed that people who had voted to support the presidential candidacy of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist, also backed DeSantis’ 2022 reelection because of his lax COVID-19 policies. And he appeared with Florida’s first lady, Casey DeSantis, a tall former TV anchor with a deep, honeyed voice who talked about their three young children.
“I brought the Florida sunshine for you,” Ron DeSantis said at the top of his remarks on an unseasonably hot day in New Hampshire, with temperatures reaching 95 degrees.
But the question remains whether this will be enough to counter efforts by Democrats and former President Donald Trump to convince voters that DeSantis is the 2024 version of past failed nominees like Mitt Romney and Al Gore, both of whom were framed as too awkward and out of touch to be commander in chief.
After each of his four events in the nation’s first presidential primary state, DeSantis circulated briefly among the crowd, cocooned by an entourage that included several Florida law enforcement officers who stopped the prying press and everyone else from getting too close.
DeSantis shook hands. He posed for photos. He patted people on the back. He said some things about football, and he signed pieces of paper passed to him through a staffer — all as he was guided toward an exit and an idling black SUV ready to speed him to his next destination.
This was the governor’s first taste of campaigning as a declared presidential candidate in New Hampshire, a state known for its fuzzy, hands-on approach to determining who should be in the White House.
Though DeSantis didn’t necessarily fail the Granite State test — voters seemed generally impressed with the more toned-down, humanized version of the governor — he didn’t pass it either, flouting the age-old New Hampshire tradition of answering questions directly from voters in front of an audience. His appearances, consisting of a stump speech and a brief conversation with a local activist, had the flavor of one long, monotonous Fox News hit.
“I would like questions to be asked because this is the one state in the country where a mechanic could be a constitutional scholar,” said Julian Acciard, a former GOP congressional candidate who was disappointed in the lack of discourse from DeSantis and other candidates this campaign cycle. “I’ve watched canine trainers go toe-to-toe with Harvard scholars.”
The vast majority of GOP primary voters know DeSantis as the governor who bucked COVID-19 lockdowns and went after Disney. In Laconia, DeSantis did his best to fill in the biographical gaps.
He mentioned his “blue-collar” upbringing in Florida, where he was raised by a mother who was a nurse and father who worked for Nielsen, the TV ratings company. (“You actually had to put the rating boxes on the TV sets back then!” DeSantis said, referencing a cultural touchstone for some of the older voters in the room.) He also noted his turn as a star Little League baseball player. His stint in the U.S. Navy. His first minimum wage job as an electrician’s assistant, and having to spend an entire paycheck on work boots that were approved by safety regulators but that he deemed unnecessary for the role.
“That was a lesson in life that when the government says it’s going to protect you, sometimes it’s not necessarily doing that,” said DeSantis, who also described showing up to Yale University as a Florida beach bum in jean shorts and flip-flops.
Casey DeSantis, dressed in skinny jeans, a blue zip-up jacket and pointy white heels — along with a face of makeup that remained perfectly powdered in the thick New England humidity — provided an interlude at her husband’s event.
She compared the fast and grueling nature of campaigning to wrangling their children into the car and trying to convince the youngest that “you cannot buckle your seat belt into the cup holder, it doesn’t work that way.” She referred to her husband as “the better half” — emphasis on “the” — and someone who “never changes, never cowers, never takes the path of least resistance.”
If the goal for Ron DeSantis’ early state debut was to make him seem like a person who likes interacting with other people, it worked. Sue Nelson, the head of a local Republican women’s group, managed to grab DeSantis for just a few seconds in Laconia before he scooted out the door. She told him that one of her children was moving to Amelia Island, a vacation destination on Florida’s eastern coast.
“He said it was beautiful,” stated Nelson, who found DeSantis to be “warm” on the stage and more multidimensional than he comes across on TV. “You look at all these politicians, and a lot of them have to read their speeches. ... But what he was saying comes from the heart.”
This was the opposite of the impression DeSantis had been leaving as recently as a few weeks ago, when he was promoting his memoir in a book tour largely seen as a run-up to a then-unannounced presidential bid.
DeSantis’ aversion to schmoozing became obvious after he shortchanged smaller groups of GOP activists in Michigan and Texas who had carved out time to see him. That stretch — combined with news stories about his odd behavior, like when he reportedly ate pudding with three of his fingers on a private flight — coincided with a dip in the polls, giving Trump a substantial lead over the governor in surveys of both the New Hampshire and national GOP primary electorates.
And the Granite State trip wasn’t without its bumpy moments. After a reporter shouted a question about why DeSantis wasn’t doing Q&As with voters, he let his guard slip.
“People are coming up to me, talking to me. What are you talking about?” he snapped. “I’m out here working with people. Are you blind?”
Later during an appearance on Fox News, he gave a bizarre answer to a simple question about how he prefers to pronounce his last name.
“The way to pronounce my last name? Winner,” he said.
Still, New Hampshire voters walked away, if not sold on DeSantis, at least happy about the range of candidates for 2024, which include South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, who, along with DeSantis, present younger options for the party.
“I think the Republicans have a lot of candidates who can move this country forward in a positive way,” said Peggy Selig, an 81-year-old retiree who would pick DeSantis over Trump if the choice came down to the two. “I don’t believe he comes with the same baggage.”
“He’s a smart man, very down to earth. He wants to protect our kids,” said Martha Bartle, a retired nurse, after DeSantis’ stop in Manchester, which attracted throngs of pro-Trump demonstrators outside the community college where DeSantis made his final appearance of the day.
A protester in a “Make America Great Again” hat complained that DeSantis couldn’t draw as big a crowd as Trump can at rallies.
“Thousands of people!” said the man, who declined to share his name. “It makes you wonder, what was it really? Did [now-President Joe] Biden really win? We all know it was a lie, right?”
That DeSantis didn’t mention Trump’s lies about the 2020 election, or name him at all, was likely the governor’s most effective weapon against the guy with bigger crowds, more charisma and looser lips.
“I still like Trump, but I call [DeSantis] Trump Jr. with more class,” said Pauline Gianunzio, a 46-year-old small-business owner and onetime Trump voter who approved of what she saw of DeSantis. “He kind of knows what to say and how to say it.”