DeSantis Tweaks His Messaging and Tactics After a Tough Campaign Stretch

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On a weekend tour through New Hampshire, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida debuted a noticeably revamped version of his stump speech that focused more on the economy and border security — issues that voters in the Republican presidential primary say they care about deeply — while leaning less heavily on his reputation as a culture warrior and his record leading his home state.

Gov. Ron DeSantis speaking on Saturday in Newport, N.H. He has adjusted his campaign tactics after struggling to gain much momentum.Credit…Joe Buglewicz for The New York Times

What changed: The speech was more human and less boilerplate.

Mr. DeSantis offered a more personal touch, opening one speech with an anecdote about his first visit to Fenway Park during his time on the Yale baseball team and told the crowd at another event about a stranger buying him an elaborate meal at a steakhouse where he got to wear his dress-white Navy uniform out in public for the first time.

Both reflected a marked change from his usual, more generic introduction, which remains in the speech, about sending President Biden “back to his basement.” Even the music at his events seemed more fitting. Before a town hall, his team played the New England earworm “Sweet Caroline.”

The crowd clapped and sang along.

Why It Matters: The latest DeSantis reset looks to be about more than staff changes.

Mr. DeSantis is in the midst of rebooting a presidential campaign. In the last few weeks, his campaign has laid off more than a third of its staff, replaced his campaign manager and dealt with the fallout from a leaked memo about debate strategy.

The tactics of his campaign already have shifted to include smaller events, more interactions with voters and the news media, and a grueling travel schedule — an effort more suited to a candidate who remains well behind former President Donald J. Trump in national polls.

Now, Mr. DeSantis is adjusting his messaging as well to focus more on kitchen-tables issues and policy proposals, a shift that a campaign adviser said has long been part of the governor’s strategy. Mr. DeSantis also spent less time in his New Hampshire speeches this weekend attacking the liberal ideology that he calls “wokeness” than he has at previous events. But he did make more of an effort to explain why fighting it should matter to voters.

“In law enforcement, in criminal justice, they overtake these prosecutor offices,” Mr. DeSantis claimed of liberal reformers, “and the average person ends up less safe as a result of that.”

And he kept his focus on meeting and talking with voters.

On Saturday, Mr. DeSantis frequently slowed down the pace of a parade in Londonderry, N.H., by stopping to shake hands with onlookers and pose for selfies. Later on, he opened an appearance by energetically shouting “Live free or die,” New Hampshire’s state motto, and made sure to ask the names of voters questioning him at the town hall.

“He’s doing the retail politics thing, connecting with folks,” Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, a Republican who has clashed with Mr. Trump, said of Mr. DeSantis after the two governors met briefly at the parade. “I think he’s got a huge opportunity here.”

What’s Next: A big debate … without Donald Trump.

Mr. DeSantis faces the biggest test of his campaign on Wednesday: the first Republican presidential primary debate of the 2024 race, in Milwaukee.

Mr. Trump appears to be skipping the debate, handing Mr. DeSantis an opportunity to take the spotlight. But the former president’s absence also means Mr. DeSantis, as the stand-in front-runner, will most likely come under withering fire from rival candidates. How he handles those attacks could define his image in the eyes of many voters tuning into the primary race for the first time.

Never Back Down, the super PAC supporting his bid, had suggested in a leaked memo that Mr. DeSantis go on the offensive during the debate. But on Saturday, Mr. DeSantis’s new campaign manager, James Uthmeier, sent out a memo of his own, first reported by Axios, that suggested the governor would take a more measured approach focused on President Biden and his own policy vision.

For his part, Mr. DeSantis told reporters over the weekend that he had not read the memo from the super PAC and that it would not influence his strategy.

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