During his appearance at the New Hampshire Federation of Republican Women’s fundraiser, Donald Trump told the crowd his lead in the 2024 GOP presidential primary is so big, “I’d really have to work hard to blow it.”
And the one thing Trump was not interested in doing on Tuesday was hard work.
The former president had a room full of adoring fans and a fistful of new polls showing him well ahead in the NHGOP primary. So he took the opportunity to indulge himself with a performance that was heavy on personality, light on policy, and full of snark.
Trump rolled through his personal favorites: The election he “won” in 2020 (“They rigged the election of 2020, but we’re not going to let them rig the election of 2024”), the “fake news” that treats him unfairly, and of course his legal woes.
“As you know, two weeks ago, Crooked Joe Biden ordered his top political opponent arrested,” Trump said. “Who’s that opponent? Wait –it’s me!”
He even managed to work in an extended riff on his old TV show “The Apprentice,” bragging about his ratings and asking the audience if they thought his star turn helped make him president. (The show has been off the air since 2017.)
No appeal to fence-sitters who aren’t already on board, no new messaging to engage new voters. Trump doesn’t need them. He’s got fans.
A couple of hours earlier, the vibe was very different at the Ron DeSantis town hall. The Florida governor was working the room hard. After criticism that he wasn’t willing to engage, DeSantis took about ten questions, unfiltered, from the crowd of 200 or so people for more than an hour.
It wasn’t showbiz. It was campaigning.
DeSantis was loose and relaxed, but he also looked like a man on a mission. On answer after answer, DeSantis made the pitch, “I get it done.” On the border, on “draining the swamp,” on dealing with the legacy of COVID, DeSantis was working his angle: You had Trump. He didn’t do it. But in Florida, I did. So let me do it for you in 2024.
There were fewer laughs at the DeSantis event and more efforts at traditional political persuasion. And even some of his supporters admit that may not be enough in the era of Trump.
“You listen to these people talk about Trump, and it’s not even politics,” one New Hampshire DeSantis backer said after Tuesday’s two events. “They love the show, and they aren’t ready for it to end.”
After his speech, Trump headed to his state campaign HQ in Manchester, where he signed autographs and took selfies with a crowd of supporters.
Team DeSantis says it will keep grinding out the campaign at the grassroots level. They say Granite Staters are asking for yard signs and signing up to volunteer, and they will do the work they need to do this summer to be ready to consolidate the vote when other candidates start dropping out.
It’s not fun. It’s not exciting. It’s work.
The bad news for DeSantis is there’s no amount of work his campaign can do that will change how the GOP base in New Hampshire feels about Trump. They like him — a lot.
That’s one reason why comparisons with previous frontrunners like Mitt Romney or Jeb Bush simply don’t work. Romney and Bush were never as popular among New Hampshire Republicans as Donald Trump has been for most of the past four years.
But what hard work can do is help a candidate like DeSantis show voters he’s ready if they decide it’s time to make a change. And to build a campaign to take advantage of the opportunity should it arise.
With a 40-point lead in the polls, that looks unlikely. But what happens if the numbers start tightening? If the impact of the federal indictments shifts from “Stand by Your Man” to “Is That All There Is?” If Republican voters either tire of the drama or decide the price of supporting Trump in the general election is too high to pay? What would Trump do then? Roll up his sleeves and get to work? Give up the “stolen election” patter and start pushing messages on foreign policy and the economy?
Meanwhile, DeSantis has been campaigning less as a choice and more as an alternative. “Vote for me when you decide you can’t vote for Trump.” But there were signs Tuesday that may be changing. DeSantis looked hungry. He looked more like a driven, “I’m here to earn your vote” candidate and less like the aloof executive who has made his presentation and is just waiting for everyone to sign on in agreement.
The political journalist Mark Halperin often uses the phrase “King Kong vs. Godzilla” to describe the Trump vs. DeSantis race. In New Hampshire today, that’s simply not the case. Trump’s polling and passionate support towers over the rest of the field.
But there’s another legendary competition that might be more apt. The tortoise and the hare.