“DeSantis’ argument is electability,” said Sarah Longwell, a Republican strategist who holds regular focus groups with GOP voters. “But he’s undermining the electability argument by running to the right of Trump. He’s alienating college-educated, suburban voters who want to get past Trump,” as well as the independents he would need to defeat Mr. Biden in a general election.
Ms. Longwell said Mr. DeSantis’ efforts to differentiate himself from Mr. Trump without directly criticizing him risked leaving the Florida governor without a natural constituency in the primaries.
“You can’t get around Trump,” she said. “You have to go through him.”
National polls show Mr. DeSantis trailing Mr. Trump by about 30 points — a gap that has widened significantly since Mr. DeSantis began traveling the country this spring to pitch to voters.
However, Mr. DeSantis remains the former president’s main challenger. He has shown fundraising prowess, and Never Back Down is training an army of field organizers in early voting states. And in the dogs of summer, before there’s even been a primary debate scheduled for August, it’s far too early to predict how Iowans and New Hamshirens will vote next year.
Bryan Griffin, a spokesman for the DeSantis campaign, said in an email that Mr. DeSantis has been “underrated” in every race he has won.
“This campaign is a marathon, not a sprint; we will win,” Mr. Griffin wrote.
Mr. DeSantis launched his campaign in deliberate phases, first with a series of speeches to introduce the candidate to audiences in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, then a round of town halls where Mr. DeSantis took questions directly from voters, and now gradual announcements by deep political proposals, starting with immigration.
His campaign says it has focused its spending on field operations rather than television advertising, a strategy that may not produce immediate poll hits but, his advisers argue, will pay off when it comes time to vote.