HOLLIS, NH – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis answered impromptu questions from voters during an open forum here Tuesday, a New Hampshire tradition the Republican presidential candidate was criticized for avoiding last time he visited.
Submitting to the town hall-style format, DeSantis also found himself under pressure on two issues he normally avoids discussing in detail: abortion and former President Donald Trump, who he says centerhas a commanding lead in the nation’s first primary state.
The event, with several hundred people packed inside a banquet hall, ended just as another large crowd gathered at a women’s luncheon 30 miles north in Concord, the state capital, to hear Trump repeatedly roast DeSantis. The same-day appearances in the state sparked resentment among some Trump allies angry with what they saw as a counterprogramming effort by DeSantis.
The events of the duel also underscored that while DeSantis is still uncomfortable going directly after Trump, the former president has no qualms about hitting his former ally.
Trump was the subject of the first two questions at DeSantis’ town hall.
Why is the governor, «unlike the other option,» the first questioner wondered, best positioned to «drain the swamp»? DeSantis was then asked by a teenager if Trump had “violated the peaceful transfer of power” with his behavior through Jan. 6, 2021.
“I remember these rallies in 2016. It was exciting: ‘Drain the swamp!’ I also remember ‘Lock her up!’” DeSantis said, recalling two of Trump’s rallying cries, including his threats to jail his then-Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, in response to the first question. “And then two weeks after the election: ‘Oh no, forget it. Forget I ever said that.’”
The comment was consistent with mild criticism DeSantis has leveled at Trump in the early days of the 2024 race. And it turned into a seven-minute response that became a standard DeSantis complaint that the bureaucracy in Washington is out. in tune with the rest of the country.
Given the opportunity to get tougher on Trump a question later, on the subject of January 6 and the violence at the US Capitol that day, DeSantis stepped aside and moved on after 30 seconds.
“If this election is about [President Joe] Biden’s failures and our vision for the future, we’re going to win,» DeSantis said. «If it’s about relitigating things that happened two, three years ago, we’re going to lose.»
“We had a transition of power from my first administration to my second, because I won re-election in historic fashion,” he added, offering a less-than-subtle contrast to Trump, who lost his bid for a second term as president in 2020.
DeSantis answered a dozen questions from 10 people for nearly an hour. They were all relatively friendly, and most were fairly easy to respond to based on their typical speeches and campaign themes.
While DeSantis runs as a culture warrior on issues like the school curriculum and LGBTQ rights, he has said little during the campaign about his opposition to abortion, and New Hampshire observers have noted that the issue could be a barrier for DeSantis in a state where voters, especially independents and Republicans, preach individual liberty.
A woman at the hearing Tuesday pointed to the six-week abortion ban DeSantis signed in Florida and linked it to welfare benefits, asking why taxpayers should pay for children whose mothers «don’t want to work.»
DeSantis began his response with a brief mention of the «exceptions» (for rape, incest, and the mother’s health up to 15 weeks) set by the Florida Legislature. She continued to defend the ban and emphasize state programs for mothers in need.
“I think it’s wrong to write people off,” he said. «And so we believe that everyone counts.»
Bob Beckett, who hands out business cards at Republican events identifying himself as a New Hampshire primary voter, said after the town hall that DeSantis’ performance surprised him, in a good way.
“Much more thoughtful than I imagined, much more cerebral than I expected,” said Beckett, who voted for Jeb Bush, a comparatively more moderate former Florida governor, in the 2016 primary and is leaning for the former New Jersey governor. Chris Christie this time. “What impressed me was how it went from a particular question to something bigger, bigger and grander.”
Scott Maltzie, a Concord-area Republican who wore a DeSantis baseball cap and campaign sticker at Hollis’ event, said the town hall was a smart move. Earlier this month, DeSantis lashed out at a reporter in New Hampshire who asked why the governor wasn’t hosting such events.
“I mean, that’s what the first primary in the nation is about,” said Maltzie, who plans to vote for DeSantis in the primary. “You can’t get this, really, in other states. We are small and personal enough where everyone has the opportunity to ask questions and meet these candidates face to face. And in terms of them, generating recognition and sympathy, that’s huge.»
Polls have shown DeSantis losing traction in the state since he topped a New Hampshire poll in January, before he was an official candidate. A new St. Anselm College survey A release Tuesday found Trump leading the Republican field with 47% support among registered Republican voters, followed by DeSantis at 19% and the heavily state-focused Christie at 6%. The results, which have a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points, represent a 10-point drop for DeSantis since St. Anselm’s. last survey, in March.
«Ron DeSantis’s campaign is in a spiral, and President Trump’s dominance of the Republican primary field has opened up a madcap race to take the mantle for second place,» said Karoline Leavitt, a spokeswoman for MAGA Inc., a super pro-Trump PAC. in a statement to NBC News. «Ron DeSantis isn’t ready for this moment, and Chris Christie won’t waste time eating DeSantis’ lunch.»
Trump, for his part, was greeted with a standing ovation Tuesday at the Lilac Luncheon, an annual fundraiser for the New Hampshire Federation of Republican Women in Concord. And he wasted little time tearing DeSantis apart.
The former president once again raised suspicions that DeSantis would raise the retirement age for entitlement programs such as Social Security, alluding to votes which DeSantis did when he was in the House, before he became governor. DeSantis has withdrawn from those positions, and when asked by a voter Tuesday about Social Security protection, he expressed his desire to work «in a bipartisan manner to figure out how to strengthen this program … without further disruption.»
Trump also accused DeSantis of reviewing his record on Covid policies. Both Trump and DeSantis took aggressive steps to handle the pandemic in its early days, but DeSantis soon backed down, making his resistance to shutdowns and mandates a trademark issue.
“At the appropriate time,” Trump warned Tuesday, he will remind voters of DeSantis’ efforts to shut down his state during the first weeks of Covid-19.
“We have clips of Ron where he had a closed state,” Trump added.
Trump also bragged that polls showed him leading DeSantis and the rest of the Republican field, while explaining his philosophy for going after his closest rival.
“Someone said: ‘How come you only attack him? Is it because he’s in second place?’” Trump said. “’How come you don’t attack others?’ Because they’re not in second place.»
That is the position he is focused on, no matter which rival occupies it, Trump added.
“As they keep getting to 2,” he said, “we keep sending them back to the cleaners.”
Henry J. Gomez reported from Hollis and Jonathan Allen from Concord.