MANCHESTER, N.H. — New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu recently had some advice for anyone hoping to win a presidential primary in his state: acting like a rock star “ain’t gonna fly.”
Ron DeSantis didn’t get the memo.
The Florida governor got the celebrity treatment when he made his first trip to New Hampshire, headlining a sold-out state party dinner on Friday. He won multiple standing ovations, once after protesters rushed the stage and then again after he said it’s “wrong to tell a second-grader that they were born in the wrong body.”
DeSantis was swarmed for photos after his speech, despite officials pleading with people to stay in their seats so the governor could move about the room. He worked the 500-person crowd at the Amos Tuck dinner in downtown Manchester for over an hour, a flurry of handshakes and photos that the state party chair said was unplanned and that defies the notion that he lacks retail skills.
DeSantis might have a big enough reputation that he can skip over the small rooms other presidential contenders have to work. But he’s trying to walk the walk in this small state that prides itself on putting politicians through the retail-politics ringer, and is expected to follow up his star turn in Manchester with some smaller stops on Saturday.
And that could spell trouble for his would-be rivals in the polling single-digits, who’ve been betting big on early state retail politicking to set themselves apart from their big-name competitors — DeSantis and Former President Donald Trump, who is still No. 1 in the polls.
“If you’re in New Hampshire and you’re running a sustained grassroots campaign, town hall-style meetings — I know Nikki Haley has several coming up — then you’re able to slowly build up a presence with the right message. And that’s the way to penetrate the Trump-DeSantis narrative and get yourself into the top level of the presidential race,” veteran New Hampshire GOP strategist Mike Dennehy said.
But “I don’t think you can come once a month for a couple of days, and have a couple of town hall meetings, and stop by a couple of diners, and have that be enough of an effort to make a difference,” he said.
Haley has stuck to that cadence since her launch, coming through New Hampshire once a month for a series of town halls that she argues are her key to beating Trump.
“I am not going to focus on doing big rallies,” Haley told a small crowd at the Derry-Salem Elks Lodge last month when asked how she planned to defeat Trump in the primary. “We’re going to touch hands over and over and over again. … You have to go face to face. You can’t just fly in and out.”
While Haley plots her return to New Hampshire, Vivek Ramaswamy is in the midst of a 10-county bus tour through the state that’s taking him from breweries to civic-engagement centers.
And the first stop Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) made in New Hampshire since declaring his presidential exploratory committee was to work the counter at the cramped Red Arrow Diner in Manchester.
As DeSantis inches closer to a presidential bid, he’s going to need to find a way to keep the single-digit candidates at bay while competing against the party’s other rock star: Trump.
“Only Donald Trump can come and campaign with tens of thousands of people in an arena. Most candidates in New Hampshire are going to have to commit to going to living rooms and backyard barbecues — and that includes Ron DeSantis,” former New Hampshire GOP Chair Wayne MacDonald, who chaired former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s 2016 campaign in New Hampshire, said in an interview. “If he’s not prepared to do that, then he’s going to have a problem in New Hampshire.”
DeSantis not only sold out the state GOP’s major fundraising dinner on Friday, but he helped the party raise a record $382,000 — in part by asking his own donors to pitch in.
And the governor’s impromptu glad-handing sent the already star-struck crowd of party activists into a tizzy. They mobbed him as he shuffled from table to table, chattering about the unseasonably warm weather — “I’m taking credit for it” — and clasping hands.
But Friday was just DeSantis’ introduction to a state known for weeding out politicians who can’t hoof it on the trail.
“My advice to [DeSantis] is to accept the invitation to the Belknap County Republican Committee cruise on June 2,” Belknap County Republicans Chair Gregg Hough said. “There will be 300 to 500 of the state’s most important Republicans, and if he wants to have a crack at this place, he’s going to have to do that.”