Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida on Friday hinted at how he might try to soften his image as a conservative hard-liner, a strategy that appeared intended to target more moderate voters in the state, which holds a centrist reputation and could be decisive in the Republican primary.
During a discussion with state lawmakers outside Manchester, N.H., Mr. DeSantis, who is expected to declare his candidacy for president next week, largely focused on pocketbook and family issues with broader appeal, including school choice, tax cuts, crime and inflation, rather than aspects of the more divisive social agenda he has pushed as governor.
For instance, Mr. DeSantis barely referenced his legislation on transgender issues and did not touch on abortion at all. Last month, he signed a six-week abortion ban, one of the most restrictive in the nation. (New Hampshire limits abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy.)
“If you look at what we’ve been able to accomplish,” Mr. DeSantis said of his legislative record in Florida, “there is something in there for anybody in terms of the issues that we tackled.”
Mr. DeSantis needs a strong showing in New Hampshire — along with a win in the more conservative Iowa — to demonstrate that he has staying power in the race against his main rival for the Republican nomination, former President Donald J. Trump, the governor’s allies and some of his political advisers say.
Mr. Trump is running 20 points ahead of Mr. DeSantis in New Hampshire, according to a mid-April poll from the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. The challenge for Mr. DeSantis lies in how he separates himself from Mr. Trump, not just on policy but also in terms of personality.
“The message is very similar, but there are many people, and I would count myself as one of them, who are offended by Trump’s crudeness,” said Mark Pearson, a state representative in New Hampshire who has endorsed Mr. DeSantis and attended the Manchester event on Friday, which took place at the Bedford Village Inn. “Elections are won in the middle. The battle is won with the Bedford soccer moms who are moderate Republicans, who are training their kids to speak politely, and Trump turns them off.”
On a private conference call with donors and supporters a day earlier, Mr. DeSantis argued that he was the only Republican who could win a general election — and pointed to his support from legislators in New Hampshire, roughly 50 of whom have endorsed him. He also visited the state last month.
The lawmakers who backed him, Mr. DeSantis said on the call, were “saying similar things like, you know, the governor is the guy, that he can win, he can get things done, all this other stuff.”
Mr. Trump won New Hampshire in 2016, a victory that put him on the path to capturing the Republican Party’s nomination, after losing Iowa to Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. Mr. Trump won the state even as he favored large rallies over the more intimate politicking that New Hampshire residents say they want to see from candidates.
“In New Hampshire, it’s about meeting almost every voter,” said Jason Osborne, the Republican State House majority leader, who has endorsed Mr. DeSantis. The important factor for the governor, Mr. Osborne said, is whether he will “be able to connect with people as he meets them face-to-face, looks them in the eye and describes his vision for the country.”
After his remarks to the lawmakers, Mr. DeSantis met with voters in Manchester at the Red Arrow Diner, a mainstay of every presidential campaign that has already received visits this year from Nikki Haley (who enjoyed the “Haley Hashbrown Special,” according to a post on the diner’s website) and Vivek Ramaswamy, as well as Mr. Trump.
Doug McGinley, a retired investment manager, snapped a picture of his grandson standing with the governor outside the diner. Mr. McGinley said he did not want to vote for Mr. Trump, whom he considers self-interested. But he isn’t yet sold on Mr. DeSantis.
“I need to see more of him firsthand,” Mr. McGinley said. “I want to see if he can catch fire on a retail level. I’m glad to see him doing things like this.”
Maggie Haberman contributed reporting.
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