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DeSantis presidential campaign retools its message in an effort to catch up to Trump

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As Florida Governor Ron DeSantis watches his presidential bid falter, he's going for broke in Iowa in a last-ditch effort to catch Republican frontrunner Donald Trump. Steve Bousquet of member station WFSU in Tallahassee reports on how DeSantis is trying to retool the way he's presenting himself to voters yet again.

STEVE BOUSQUET, BYLINE: For months, DeSantis ridiculed mainstream news outlets as corporate legacy media. But now he needs their attention, even if it means answering questions about his floundering campaign, as he did recently on CNBC.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON DESANTIS: In Florida, I'm a leader. I'm not an entertainer. I'm not running a soap opera down here. I make promises to people, and then I use the authority that I have, and I work with the legislature to deliver the promises. And so the results speak for themselves.

BOUSQUET: To appeal to Trump's base, DeSantis pushed a culture war agenda and overwhelmingly won reelection in 2022. But over time, he talked less about woke ideology, as he called it, his so-called don't say gay law and other topics that tend to turn off moderate voters. Lately, he's focused on trying to prove he's the most electable Republican in the field. Political scientist Aubrey Jewett at the University of Central Florida says DeSantis retooled his message when his campaign team realized his poll numbers among national voters were slipping.

AUBREY JEWETT: Part of the reset that DeSantis and his campaign team have tried to do is to focus on the issues that the average voter says they do care about, like immigration and the economy, particularly inflation.

BOUSQUET: But DeSantis' critics say it may be too late for a makeover. Here's Fentrice Driskell, a Tampa legislator who heads the Democratic caucus in the Florida House.

FENTRICE DRISKELL: He has failed to capitalize on his election win to raise his profile nationally. And he's doing worse in the polls than before he started. Meanwhile, he's got a seemingly endless stream of negative stories.

BOUSQUET: The latest flashpoint came over the weekend in Iowa, when he said the U.S. should not accept refugees from Gaza because they are, quote, "antisemitic." His comments on the war between Hamas and Israel have taken on a hard-line approach as he tries to funnel support from Trump. This week, the former president promoted a plan that would expand his earlier travel ban to exclude people from what he calls terror-plagued places. That attempt to be both like Trump and in contrast to him overshadows DeSantis' campaign. Democratic Florida Congressman Jared Moskowitz knows DeSantis well. He worked for the governor as director of emergency management throughout the COVID-19 crisis. Moskowitz sees DeSantis' problems as unavoidable.

JARED MOSKOWITZ: Donald Trump is the leader of the Republican Party. Him being the leader of the Republican Party, it's clear that it's not to be questioned. And quite frankly, I don't think there's anyone who's going to be able to take him down.

BOUSQUET: Most polls show Trump leading DeSantis by 30 points or more. Adding to DeSantis' challenges, the latest campaign spending reports show he took in just over $11 million in the past quarter, but also spent nearly as much. As he sprints toward early state nominating contests next year, he'll have to juggle his campaign schedule with his duties as governor.

For NPR News, I'm Steve Bousquet in Tallahassee.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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