Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida is relocating a significant portion of his presidential campaign staff from Tallahassee to Des Moines, according to his top deputies, redeploying his team to the leadoff state after a $15 million fund-raising haul that advisers said had helped stabilize his campaign.
The push into Iowa highlights the state’s make-or-break status for Mr. DeSantis’s long-shot effort to defeat former President Donald J. Trump. Mr. DeSantis hopes a surprise victory in Iowa’s caucuses, the first voting state of the Republican nominating contest, will make enough voters see that Mr. Trump is beatable — motivating them to quickly rally around Mr. DeSantis as the only candidate able to stop him.
About a third of Mr. DeSantis’s campaign staff, including senior political and communications advisers, were informed on Wednesday morning that they would be expected to move into short-term housing in Iowa and work from offices in the state. His campaign now employs 56 people, including four Iowa staffers — a number that will soon grow to nearly two dozen, making Iowa a de facto second headquarters.
The relocation completes a monthslong retooling of Mr. DeSantis’s campaign, which was in dire financial straits this summer — with delayed bills and unpaid invoices piling up — and had to do two rounds of mass firings in order to remain solvent.
Top campaign officials said they had stabilized the situation, thanks to the $15 million infusion from donors that came in the third quarter, from July through September. That money was raised across the three committees associated with Mr. DeSantis: his main presidential campaign account, a political action committee and a fund-raising committee that feeds into those two other accounts. His campaign entered October with $13.5 million in available cash, according to top aides, although some of those funds had not yet been transferred to the campaign account.
James Uthmeier, Mr. DeSantis’s campaign manager, said in a statement that the third-quarter haul “shuts down the doubters who counted out Ron DeSantis for far too long.”
Aides acknowledged that only $5 million of those funds were eligible to spend in the primary season, meaning that money remains tight for a campaign that has yet to air any television ads. The strapped campaign has left advertising, and most other campaign operations, to a well-funded outside group.
Mr. DeSantis has a mountainous task ahead. Even in his chosen state of Iowa — where he is campaigning relentlessly, having already visited more than half of the state’s 99 counties — he remains some 30 points behind Mr. Trump in polling. The $15 million sum is less than the $20 million Mr. DeSantis brought in during the previous quarter, and some of this quarter’s haul is earmarked for his new PAC.
Still, the DeSantis team believes it is planting the seeds of a comeback, and that by moving his campaign’s center of gravity to Iowa it can better compete in the increasingly do-or-die state where organizing more than 1,600 independent caucus locations is essential and labor-intensive. Mr. Trump seems to have recognized the threat and has begun traveling to Iowa more frequently.
“We are redeploying many of our assets so we can further take the fight directly to Donald Trump in Iowa,” said David Polyansky, Mr. DeSantis’s deputy campaign manager.
Mr. DeSantis’s all-in investment in an early state aims to repeat the comeback effort of former Senator John McCain of Arizona, who in 2008 revived his collapsing presidential campaign by slashing his staff and pouring what remained of his resources into touring New Hampshire town by town.
But the comparison ends there. Unlike Mr. DeSantis, who has alienated moderate voters with his hard-line socially conservative positions, Mr. McCain hadn’t narrowed himself ideologically. And Mr. McCain faced nothing like the challenge Mr. DeSantis confronts in running against such an overwhelming front-runner as Mr. Trump, who has been dominating polling and news media coverage. The Republican electorate appears to be treating Mr. Trump as almost an incumbent president.
The DeSantis campaign’s public financial paperwork will be released by the Federal Election Commission on Oct. 15, allowing for a more detailed picture of its books. The last report, in July, resulted in a series of cost-cutting measures. Those cuts, which helped keep the campaign afloat, included turning over key functions, such as organizing events, to a pro-DeSantis super PAC and giving up on the idea of running a national race against Mr. Trump.
Heading into the fall, the DeSantis campaign has re-emerged as a leaner operation focused on prevailing in Iowa while also drawing a more aggressive contrast with Mr. Trump and gaining attention by giving frequent interviews to the mainstream press. Mr. DeSantis’s efforts have been buoyed by two solid performances in the Republican presidential debates, which reassured donors. His campaign said he raised roughly $1 million in the 24 hours after the first debate in Milwaukee and a similar figure in the 24 hours after the second one.
The DeSantis campaign probably would not have survived without its super PAC, Never Back Down, which was financed chiefly by a $82.5 million cash transfer from Mr. DeSantis’s state committee. Never Back Down — which is barred by campaign finance laws from coordinating strategy with either Mr. DeSantis or his campaign team — has been running the DeSantis campaign’s bus tours and has even been handling outreach to voters, including calls and door knocking.
The campaign is now being helmed by two new leaders: Mr. Uthmeier, who was Mr. DeSantis’s chief of staff in the governor’s office and is now the campaign manager, and Mr. Polyanksy, a former official at Never Back Down. The hiring of Mr. Polyanksy revealed much about the new direction of Mr. DeSantis’s campaign: He is a veteran of the Iowa caucuses and played an important role in two victorious Republican campaigns there — Ted Cruz’s in 2016 and Mike Huckabee’s in 2008.
Among the new Iowa staff’s duties will be organizing caucus sites and setting up events and appearances by surrogates who can drive news media coverage and attention.
The daunting nature of running against Mr. Trump, who skipped the debates, is that his online fund-raising apparatus continues to bring in contributions from small donors almost as if on autopilot.
In the first six months of the year, he reported more than $250,000 raised, on average, every day — a pace that is roughly the equivalent of $22.5 million in a quarter. And while that average was boosted heavily by indictment-fueled surges, his median day still brought in $153,000 online, according to federal records.
Mr. DeSantis’s campaign declined this week to say how much of his fund-raising came from the small donors who fuel campaigns with repeated contributions. But his online haul is nowhere close to Mr. Trump’s.
The DeSantis team is banking on the notion that an upset victory in Iowa would shatter the former president’s aura of inevitability and that Republicans would suddenly rush behind Mr. DeSantis as the only viable alternative. The problem with that theory is that former Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina is increasingly competitive with Mr. DeSantis and has no apparent incentive to drop out of the race. And Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina is also likely to have enough cash to stay in the race and divide up the anti-Trump vote.
Still, Mr. Trump has responded to the Florida governor’s efforts in Iowa. The former president has made several appearances in the state and his super PAC purchased more television time there this week. In Mr. DeSantis’s view, that is an early sign that his strategy is working.
The former president “is currently spending money against me in Iowa,” Mr. DeSantis said in a Fox News interview on Tuesday. “He is campaigning in Iowa. And that’s an indication — you can tell campaigns by what they do.”
Over the past few months, Mr. DeSantis has also changed his style of campaigning. Until the summer, he took pride in refusing to engage with the mainstream media that he derisively called the “corporate media.”
But as Mr. Trump widened his lead in national polls, the governor threw out that strategy. He began talking to the press almost constantly and sitting for interviews with all the major television networks — unimaginable venues for the Fox-centric early-2023 version of Mr. DeSantis, who was still riding high off his 20-point re-election win in Florida and enjoying the luxury of picking and choosing between fawning conservative media interviews.
“Let’s face it, Ron, if this campaign was going well you wouldn’t be on this show,” Bill Maher told Mr. DeSantis in an interview last week.
“Oh, that’s not true,” Mr. DeSantis replied halfheartedly.
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