DeSantis campaign projects optimism ahead of Republican debate, with time running out to catch Trump

Primary voting begins next month as aides argue he has "momentum."

December 6, 2023, 11:18 AM

There's less and less time for any of Donald Trump's rivals to convince Republican voters not to support the front-runner in the 2024 presidential primary that starts next month -- but Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' campaign maintains that he is "riding a wave of momentum" going into Wednesday night's debate.

That's according to a new memo to donors and supporters that was obtained by ABC News.

The memo, from DeSantis' campaign manager, James Uthmeier, seeks to project confidence at the governor's chances, despite his stagnating poll numbers.

DeSantis entered the 2024 race earlier this year to much fanfare and pitched himself as the main Trump alternative, given Trump's numerous controversies and legal troubles. (The former president denies all wrongdoing.)

But after more than six months of campaigning, Trump remains the double-digit leader in polls against DeSantis, according to 538's averages -- both nationally and in states like Iowa, which will start the primary with caucuses on Jan. 15.

Uthmeier, in the pre-debate memo, touted the eventful week the governor has had, completing a 99-county tour of Iowa on Saturday and debating California's Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom in Georgia on Thursday night.

In the memo, DeSantis' campaign manager underscored how the fourth GOP primary debate, in Alabama, would differ from the previous ones with fewer candidates appearing on the stage, allowing the governor more time to share his vision for the country if elected president.

"Only one candidate will be focused on fighting for, winning for, and leading the American people - and that candidate is Ron DeSantis," Uthmeier wrote.

Republican presidential candidate Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks to guests during a campaign rally at the Thunderdome, Dec. 2, 2023, in Newton, Iowa.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

The governor's supporters are dealing with some turmoil, however: The main super PAC backing him, Never Back Down, recently saw key advisers and staff, including CEO Kristin Davison and chairman Adam Laxalt, split from the organization.

Scott Wagner, an ally of the governor, was named the new chair of the political action committee.

DeSantis marketed his 99-county tour of Iowa as a way to show he's committed to shaking hands with local voters, who historically value the personal connections they make with presidential candidates. He also recently earned the endorsement of the state's Republican governor, Kim Reynolds.

Republicans in Iowa view DeSantis favorably, even though he still trails Trump. When factoring in respondents' second choice and candidates they were "actively considering," a Des Moines Register/NBC poll of likely Republican caucus-goers in October showed DeSantis nearly tied with Trump.

But time is running out for DeSantis to become those voters' favorite candidate -- and Iowa is just one state.

"It definitely has to be turning those twos into ones and winning now," Iowa Senate President Amy Sinclair, who has endorsed DeSantis, told ABC News, adding that the time DeSantis has spent in the state should help him.

Republican presidential candidate and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis interacts with his supporters at a Never Back Down campaign event at The Thunderdome in Newton, Iowa, Dec. 2, 2023.
Vincent Alban/Reuters

Helen Hansen, a Iowa voter who attended DeSantis' 99th-county rally in the Des Moines suburb of Newton on Saturday, told ABC News she still has not decided who she'll support in the caucuses, adding she's open to supporting the governor, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley or Trump.

"I still have a little question [on] who I really want to vote for," Hansen told ABC News. "I just feel it's really important to get DeSantis' personal view and I've wanted to meet the man for a long time."

"I am leaning heavily towards [DeSantis] at this point," said Bob Main, another attendee at his rally in Newton. "I haven't decided for sure yet, but that's partly why I'm here today."

Allies who have spoken to ABC News argue that if DeSantis wins Iowa or comes close, he would be able to show that Trump winning the overall primary isn't inevitable -- hopefully persuading more Republican voters in states like New Hampshire and South Carolina, where polling shows Trump's support is robust.

Florida Governor and Republican presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis and California Governor Gavin Newsom appear on a screen in the press room during a debate in Alpharetta, Georgia, Nov. 30, 2023.
Christian Monterrosa/AFP via Getty Images

The prime-time debate with Newsom, which aired on Fox News, gave the governor a national platform none of his primary competitors had to showcase the thing that made him a GOP star in the first place: his record of enacting conservative policies in Florida, including backing pro-law enforcement legislation, restrictions on abortion access and limits on what kinds of topics can be taught in K-12 schools.

DeSantis emphasized the debate during a swing through South Carolina the next day, speaking extensively about it at two town halls.

John Toney, a 67-year-old retiree who saw DeSantis speak in the town of Prosperity, said the governor's performance against Newsom may have won him over.

"The way he performed there, the points he makes, I'm definitely leaning his way," Toney told ABC News.