DeSantis Quietly Starts Building His Off-Ramp From 2024 Race

After a humbling loss in Iowa, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida is starting to signal that he is building an off-ramp from the race for the Republican presidential nomination, a seeming acknowledgment of his dim prospects of defeating Donald J. Trump given his low poll numbers in New Hampshire and South Carolina.

So far this week, Mr. DeSantis has cast his eyes forward to 2028 with anecdotes about Trump supporters saying they would vote for him next time around if he runs again in four years. He has conceded that Mr. Trump’s thumping victory in Iowa on Monday made for a “good showing in terms of him winning the nomination.” And he has openly admitted that he believes he made a strategic mistake by icing out the traditional media earlier in the campaign.

It all amounted to a kind of frankness that Mr. DeSantis has not always shown in his public comments about the nominating contest — and a marked change in tone for a candidate who spent most of last year brashly promising he would win Iowa, which he lost by 30 points.

On Thursday, the conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt asked Mr. DeSantis if his campaign would survive through the end of March. The Florida governor replied that things were not necessarily going to plan.

“Look, my goal is to win the nomination. Had we won Iowa, we would have been in a great spot,” Mr. DeSantis said, before suggesting there would be no point in staying in the race if it were to become clear that he could not win.

“I don’t want to be VP, I don’t want to be in the cabinet, I don’t want a TV show,” he said. “I’m in it to win it, and at some point if that’s not working out for you, I recognize that. This isn’t a vanity thing for me.”

Mr. DeSantis’s comments hint that a hard truth is setting in: the former president may be about to run away with the race. Mr. DeSantis is polling so badly in New Hampshire, which votes on Tuesday, that he is spending the weekend campaigning in South Carolina, which holds its primary a month later and where he thinks he has a better shot. In both states, he is trailing Nikki Haley, a former governor of South Carolina.

Andrew Romeo, the DeSantis campaign’s communications director, reiterated that Mr. DeSantis was in the race “for the long haul,” through South Carolina and beyond.

His best hope of continuing to compete, his aides have said, is for Ms. Haley to lose her home state on Feb. 24 and drop out, leaving Mr. DeSantis with a one-on-one matchup against Mr. Trump. “No one will be funding a bubble-wrapped candidate who can’t win her home state,” Mr. Romeo argued.

But Super Tuesday, when 16 states and territories votes on March 5, is well set up for Mr. Trump to dominate, polling shows, even in a two-person race against Mr. DeSantis. In that case, Mr. DeSantis may be looking at running again in 2028, the year after his term as governor ends.

In South Carolina on Tuesday, Mr. DeSantis said that Trump voters in Iowa had told him they would support him in four years. “They were coming up to me saying, ‘We want you in 2028, we love you, man,’” Mr. DeSantis told reporters.

He made similar comments during an interview with NBC News, saying: “I had people come up to me saying, ‘I love you, man. I’m going to do Trump this time and you next time.’ That’s not what I wanted to hear, but being there we did make an impression and it’s important.”

And during his interview with Mr. Hewitt, he praised Mr. Trump’s performance.

“Clearly when you win Iowa by the amount he did, that’s what you want to be doing if you’re going to win the nomination,” Mr. DeSantis said. He then expressed regret for his campaign’s early strategy of limiting his media appearances to Fox News and other conservative outlets, acknowledging that he failed to reach a wide enough group of voters.

“I should have just been blanketing, I should have gone on all the corporate shows, I should have gone on everything,” he told Mr. Hewitt in a moment of introspection. “We had an opportunity, I think, to come out of the gate and do that and reach a much broader folk.”

Although he shaped his image in Florida as a conservative warrior by beating up on the traditional media, he and his team have lately turned on Fox too, accusing it of being in the bag for the former president.

Mr. DeSantis, who for months has campaigned relentlessly and without complaint, also indicated this week that the rigors of the trail were beginning to wear him down — a rare admission. On Tuesday morning, Mr. DeSantis woke up in Iowa after his bruising defeat in the caucuses, flew to South Carolina for a rally and a news conference, and then traveled to New Hampshire to participate in an evening town-hall event on CNN.

The next day, after two more campaign events in New Hampshire, a tired-looking Mr. DeSantis confessed to reporters that it had been “a tough stretch.”

“By the time I walked out on that stage last night for CNN, I mean, it was adrenaline,” Mr. DeSantis said. “And I was like, ‘All right, we got to get through this.’ ”

Maggie Astor and Nick Corasaniti contributed reporting.


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