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DeSantis Replaces Campaign Manager in Major Leadership Shake-Up

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DeSantis Replaces Campaign Manager in Major Leadership Shake-Up

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Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida is shaking up his presidential campaign — again.

For the third time in less than a month, Mr. DeSantis’s campaign announced a major restructuring, this time removing his embattled campaign manager, Generra Peck, and replacing her with a loyalist from the governor’s office, as he continues to search for a campaign team and a political message that can compete with former President Donald J. Trump.

The reorganization — in which a top official at the main pro-DeSantis super PAC will also take on an influential role inside the campaign — caps a turbulent period of layoffs, financial worries and a shift in strategy for the Florida governor, who is increasingly banking on an Iowa-or-bust approach. While his supporters had hoped he would harness his success in reshaping Florida into a conservative stronghold and put up a robust challenge to Mr. Trump, he has so far failed to live up to expectations.

The urgency of the need to make cutbacks was underscored by a letter the DeSantis campaign received this week from the Federal Election Commission. The letter detailed $2.6 million in donations that were mistakenly marked by the DeSantis campaign as for the primary election, but that could actually be used only for the general election.

For Mr. DeSantis, that means his campaign’s available cash for the primary entering July was significantly less than the $9.2 million his financial report initially showed, and closer to $6.6 million. (A campaign aide said some money could be reallocated and still be used for the primary.) Even that figure is most likely rosier than reality, because several key vendors did not show up on the books at all.

Taking over the campaign is James Uthmeier, the governor’s chief of staff, who is one of his most trusted advisers but has little campaign experience. In another significant move, David Polyansky, one of the architects of the early-state strategy at Never Back Down, the pro-DeSantis super PAC, is moving from that outside group to the campaign. Ms. Peck is staying on as the campaign’s chief strategist. The Messenger earlier reported the staffing moves.

Rather than ripping off the Band-Aid all at once, Mr. DeSantis’s campaign has made successive rounds of changes in recent weeks that have been an enduring distraction as he tries to reverse his decline in polls. He has taken two bus trips in Iowa in the last two weeks — both organized by his super PAC, in another cost-cutting move — and another trip is planned for later this week, as he works to fulfill his promise to visit all 99 of the state’s counties.

But so far, Mr. DeSantis and his message have failed to connect with Republican primary voters. After winning re-election in a landslide last year, Mr. DeSantis built his 2024 candidacy on the idea that he was a more electable Republican than Mr. Trump and the type of politician who could actually accomplish what he promised, based on his record in Florida.

A recent New York Times/Siena College poll showed that Republican voters viewed Mr. Trump, not Mr. DeSantis, as the stronger candidate against President Biden and as the Republican contender more likely to “get things done.”

Mr. DeSantis has labored to find a way to cut into Mr. Trump’s base without alienating his own supporters, stopping short of full-throated denunciations of the former president, even when Mr. Trump was indicted last week over his role in trying to overturn the 2020 election.

“I feel like Republicans want an alternative to Trump and DeSantis was sort of it — and then they made a summary judgment that, no, it’s not him,” said Rick Tyler, a Republican strategist who has worked on past presidential campaigns and who opposes Mr. Trump’s nomination.

“He’s clearly an intelligent person,” Mr. Tyler said of Mr. DeSantis. “But he has no idea how to run for president and no idea how to beat Trump because treating Trump as unexploded ordnance doesn’t work. We know that doesn’t work.”

Some bullish supporters of Mr. DeSantis said the changing of the guard could reinvigorate his campaign before the first debate in Milwaukee in two weeks, an event seen as increasingly crucial to his chances of a turnaround. It is not clear if Mr. Trump will attend.

“If you’re leading by 50 and 60 and 70 points, do you do that or not?” Mr. Trump asked the crowd at an event on Tuesday in New Hampshire. “I don’t know. Should I?”

Last year, Ms. Peck, 36, oversaw Mr. DeSantis’s overwhelming re-election as governor, making herself an invaluable confidante to the governor and his wife, Casey. But she had never worked on a presidential campaign, much less run one. Mr. Uthmeier, 35, appears to have even less direct political experience than Ms. Peck, underscoring the degree to which Mr. DeSantis values personal loyalty and how the DeSantises’ trust often matters most.

Mr. Uthmeier, who previously worked in the Trump administration and as general counsel to Mr. DeSantis, as well as a lawyer in the Washington office of the law firm Jones Day, said in a statement that “people have written Governor DeSantis’s obituary many times” but that his boss “has proven that he knows how to win.”

James Uthmeier previously served as general counsel to Mr. DeSantis and worked in the Trump administration.Credit…MA and F Collection 2018, via Alamy

The arrival of Mr. Polyansky, who is an expert in Iowa politics and who has worked closely for years with the super PAC’s main strategist, Jeff Roe, is seen as a major change as well. The super PAC and the campaign have had some tensions over strategy, and Mr. Polyansky will bring Mr. Roe’s thoughts about the campaign and its messaging into its top levels.

Under the current byzantine rules of campaign finance, strategists with the super PAC can directly join the campaign, but the reverse is prohibited.

Mr. Polyansky was on the trail in recent weeks with Mr. DeSantis as the group put together a bus tour for the governor. After the campaign’s cash crunch, the super PAC began taking over many of the functions normally associated with a campaign, like organizing retail stops and speaking events, giving Mr. DeSantis an up-close view of how the super PAC’s early-state operation worked under Mr. Polyansky.

By the time Mr. DeSantis replaced Ms. Peck, she was widely seen as miscast in the campaign manager role, even by those who liked her. She had come under fire in particular for building a campaign team so quickly that Mr. DeSantis was forced to lay off roughly 40 percent of his aides only two months into his candidacy.

Ms. Peck also allowed aides running a “DeSantis War Room” Twitter account to post online videos freely but outside normal approval channels, according to a person familiar with the campaign’s operations. The account shared an anti-Trump video that the campaign had secretly made and pushed out to a friendly supporter to post first, making it appear organic. The video was widely criticized as homophobic.

During a campaign retreat with donors in Park City, Utah, about two weeks ago, a few people raised concerns with Mr. DeSantis and his wife about the state of his campaign’s finances, according to three people briefed on the discussions. The campaign’s finances were so worrying that Mr. Uthmeier, while still the governor’s chief of staff, received a personal briefing on the situation from Ethan Eilon, now the deputy campaign manager, and then delivered an assessment to the governor.

Perhaps reflecting the uncertain nature of presidential politics, Mr. Uthmeier is not permanently giving up his seat in the governor’s office. Instead, he is taking a “leave of absence” as chief of staff, according to a spokesman for the governor. Another influential DeSantis aide, Alex Kelly, will serve as acting chief of staff.

Democrats have filed ethics and election complaints against Mr. Uthmeier, who joined the governor’s office in 2019, for raising money from lobbyists for Mr. DeSantis’s 2024 campaign, as well as soliciting endorsements from state legislators while serving as his chief of staff.

Staff turnover has been a constant in Mr. DeSantis’s runs for elected office, and he has had little overlap between any of the teams who have worked on his campaigns since he was first elected to Congress in 2012.

Before his narrow victory for governor in 2018, Mr. DeSantis also shook up his campaign early in the general election when he was trailing Andrew Gillum, a Democrat.

Whit Ayres, a Republican political consultant who worked for Mr. DeSantis on that race but said he had not heard from the governor since, said that replacing staff members could do only so much when the candidate himself might be part of the problem.

Mr. Ayres pointed to Mr. DeSantis’s comments that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was a “territorial dispute,” his suggestion that he might appoint the vaccine skeptic and Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to a top public health post, and his defense of Florida’s controversial educational standards on slavery.

“I’ve watched one unforced error after another,” Mr. Ayres said. “That suggests to me that he doesn’t have the political instincts to play at this level.”

Jonathan Swan contributed reporting from Washington, and Andrew Fischer from New York.

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