By Gram Slattery and James Oliphant
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Presidential contender Ron DeSantis, who was once viewed as Republicans’ best shot at moving past Donald Trump, dropped out of the primary race on Sunday, a relatively early exit that underlines the iron grip the former president retains on the party.
DeSantis, 45, endorsed Trump in a video posted to the X social media site.
DeSantis had been widely seen as a top contender for the 2024 Republican nomination and a natural heir to Trump due to his combative style and deeply conservative views. Early in 2023, he led several head-to-head polls against Trump.
But the Florida governor’s support has been declining for several months, due to flawed campaign strategy, his seeming lack of ease with voters on the campaign trail and Trump’s so far unshakeable hold on much of the party’s base.
The end of DeSantis’ bid means that former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, is now the last Republican in the race with a shot – albeit a long one – of denying Trump the nomination. The winner of the Republican nominating contest will take on President Joe Biden, the likely Democratic nominee, in the general election in November.
More than 70% of Republicans have a favorable opinion of Trump, according to most opinion polls. That put DeSantis in a position where he had to appeal to voters that still admired Trump, as well as those who passionately disliked him.
DeSantis failed on both counts. He never successfully articulated to most Trump supporters why he was a better option, while Republicans looking to ditch the former president split their votes among multiple candidates. Haley, in particular, has been emerged as the favorite among moderate Republicans as the field has consolidated.Where DeSantis differed from Trump on policy, it was almost always to stake out a more conservative position. He signed a six-week abortion ban in Florida in April, which he eventually embraced on the campaign trail, even as it made some donors and moderate Republicans wary.
DeSantis opposed additional U.S. military assistance to Ukraine and took punitive actions against the Walt Disney Co. after the company spoke out against Florida legislation that limited discussion of gender and sexuality in classrooms.
The Disney fight was one that pro-business critics within the party said DeSantis didn’t need to wage.
While many major donors threw their support behind DeSantis early on, they began to rebel as early as the summer.
Robert Bigelow, who gave millions to the super PAC fundraising group backing DeSantis, told Reuters in August he was cutting off funding, turned off by the governor’s uncompromising position on abortion.
DeSantis’ troubles began before he ever entered the race.
In March, when Trump was indicted in New York on charges he conspired to conceal hush money payments to a porn star, the former president received a significant bump in the polls as Republicans rallied around him. Many of them believed Trump’s claims that law enforcement officials were targeting him to keep him out of office.
Several DeSantis allies say the governor waited too long to become a candidate, finally throwing his hat into the ring in May, over six months after Trump had done so. That left DeSantis open to blistering attacks by Trump, while the governor himself did little to defend himself, insisting he was not a candidate.
When DeSantis did formally launch his White House run in May 2023, it was a glitch-filled disaster on Twitter, now known as X, an inauspicious start for a campaign predicated on the governor’s executive competence.
The campaign then overhired, burning through cash at a rapid rate. DeSantis let go of some 38 staffers in July and ousted his campaign manager in August, sowing a narrative of internal chaos that proved hard to shake.
He outsourced much of the traditional work of a campaign to an outside super PAC, which can accept donations of unlimited size, but cannot coordinate with the campaign itself.
The campaign and the PAC, known as Never Back Down, came to distrust one another. A series of back-to-back departures of senior staffers from the PAC in November and December created a sense of turmoil that furthered the narrative that the governor’s campaign was mortally wounded.
(Reporting by Gram Slattery and Jim Oliphant, Editing by Ross Colvin and Alistair Bell)
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