DeSantis sets sights on weakening Haley in South Carolina as both push for 1-on-1 race with Trump

"I think it is vital for Gov. DeSantis to start early in South Carolina."

January 17, 2024, 12:45 PM

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- The spotlight in the race for the Republican presidential nomination has moved to New Hampshire ahead of Tuesday's primary. But as one of the challengers, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, traverses the state, his operation is also focusing attention on a more distant contest -- South Carolina's Feb. 24 primary.

Unlike his rivals, former President Donald Trump and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, DeSantis did not fly straight to New Hampshire after Monday's Iowa caucuses, in which he placed a distant second behind Trump, instead beelining for the Palmetto State.

There, on Tuesday, he packed an airline hangar for a Greenville rally and held a press conference at the state Capitol in Columbia.

And while he returned to New Hampshire in time for a planned evening rally that was eventually canceled due to weather, DeSantis will make more stops in South Carolina before New Hampshire voters cast their ballots, according to people with knowledge of his campaign's thinking.

A senior campaign official confirms a majority of DeSantis' staff is being relocated to South Carolina and he will be hosting campaign events there on Saturday and Sunday.

That approach bucks the typical strategy of presidential contenders, who tend to capitalize on New Hampshire's second-place spot on the nominating calendar by spending the entirety of the gap between Iowa and New Hampshire in the latter state.

But the DeSantis campaign sees some opportunity to put pressure on Haley in her home state with limited downside for him in New Hampshire, where his public support has plummeted to roughly 25 points behind Haley, according to 538's latest polling average of the state.

In South Carolina, DeSantis trails Haley by half that and has secured more endorsements from state legislators than she has.

Each of them, however, still trails Trump by double digits in both states, according to 538.

Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a rally, Jan. 16, 2024, in Greenville, South Carolina.
Jeffrey Collins/AP

A person who has spoken to members of the DeSantis campaign told ABC News that his aides view South Carolina as a state where, by potentially beating Haley in her home state, he could knock her from the race and finally create the DeSantis-Trump two-person primary that he has sought for months.

Haley, for her part, sees the same scenario playing out in reverse -- that by having a strong showing in New Hampshire, where she is a much closer No. 2 in polling, she could help put an end to DeSantis' candidacy. Both of them have publicly vowed to remain in the race.

That DeSantis is looking ahead to a contest still weeks away comes as little surprise to those around him.

"He views this as a marathon. Taking on a former president won't be done in one or two states," Nick Iarossi, a co-chairman of DeSantis' national finance advisory board, told ABC News.

According to Iarossi and others connected to the campaign, DeSantis has said privately that he will remain in the race at least through Super Tuesday on March 5.

"We will have enough money and a motivated team to raise it," said Iarossi, adding the campaign is ready to "scrap and fight our way to a two-person race with Trump on Super Tuesday."

The effort to raise cash for the upcoming stretch started hours after DeSantis' loss in Iowa. On a call on Tuesday, campaign fundraisers argued that, despite DeSantis' defeat, nearly half of the Iowa Republican electorate voting for someone other than Trump showed there was an opportunity to give voters a choice for someone else -- in their mind, DeSantis.

Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley shakes hands during a campaign stop, Jan. 16, 2024, in Bretton Woods, N.H.
Charles Krupa/AP

In Columbia, South Carolina, on Tuesday, the governor said he would be devoting more time and resources in the state.

"I think you're going to see us be present more, not just in terms of me being in the state more but also in terms of paid media, where we're going to be able to tell our story," he told reporters.

"While it may take a few more weeks to fully get there, this will be a two-person race soon enough. Despite spending $24 million in false negative ads against Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley couldn't buy herself the kill shot she so desperately wanted ... and now she will be out of this race after failing to win her home state on February 24," DeSantis spokesman Andrew Romeo said.

Haley campaign spokeswoman Olivia Perez-Cubas shot back in a statement: "There's a reason this is a two person race between Donald Trump and Nikki Haley. Because our campaign is living in reality. Ron DeSantis' campaign is living in Disney's Magic Kingdom."

Some of DeSantis' supporters in South Carolina said they are welcoming the increased attention on their state.

"I think it is vital for Gov. DeSantis to start early in South Carolina," said state Rep. Brandon Guffey, who has endorsed him. "With our own governor [Henry McMaster] supporting Trump and his other opponent being a former governor, he needs to get his message out quickly."

Desantis "is the most conservative person on the ballot," said Guffey.

Super PAC staffing shuffle

The pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down, which has helped arrange a significant part of DeSantis' on-the-ground campaigning, is cutting at least 15 staffers from its payroll, an official familiar with the move told ABC News on Wednesday.

Among those laid off are staffers who have been based in Iowa, helping build an extensive ground game that helped the governor eke out his second-place finish in the caucuses.

Some Nevada staffers have also been laid off, according to the official.

A person familiar with the moves described them as normal shakeups that most political operations experience after certain states votes.

"I don't want to dismiss this," the person said, "but at the same time, I wish I could make it easier for people to understand that this is as normal in presidential campaign politics as breathing."

A spokesperson for the super PAC described the moves as a "planned" reshuffling of Iowa's political staff "while offering the rest of the staff pay through the rest of January."

Another person with knowledge of the layoffs, however, expressed frustration with the moves, which indicate, according to this person, an operation that is becoming "less of a campaign extension and more of a boutique travel and events service."

Ken Cuccinelli, Never Back Down's founder, told ABC News in a text message, "We are very happy with the job done by our team on the ground in Iowa."

Never Back Down is holding events in New Hampshire this week for the governor, including two town halls on Wednesday.