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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Martin Pengelly in New York

Trump builds national lead over DeSantis but faces closer race in early-voting states

Trump speaks during a rally at the Waco regional airport on 25 March 2023 in Waco, Texas.
Trump speaks during a rally at the Waco regional airport on 25 March 2023 in Waco, Texas. Photograph: Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Donald Trump has increased his national lead in the Republican presidential primary but seems set to face a closer tussle with his chief rival, Ron DeSantis, in the crucial first two states to vote, new polls show.

On Monday, a new survey from the Center for American Political Studies at Harvard and the Harris Poll gave the former president a 26-point national lead over the Florida governor, by 50% to 24%, a four-point gain since February.

Former vice-president Mike Pence, who like DeSantis has not announced a run, was third, with 7%. Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor who declared in February, was fourth, with 5% support.

The poll followed the trend in a race which on Saturday saw Trump stage his first full campaign rally in Waco, Texas, beginning with images of the January 6 attack on Congress and a song portraying those convicted as political prisoners.

Trump has also focused on a reportedly imminent indictment in New York City, over a hush money payment to the adult film star Stormy Daniels, as he looks to whip up his base.

DeSantis is widely seen to be running a shadow campaign, promoting a book in key states. He also seems to be in a difficult position, needing to support Trump in the New York case while seeking to catch up in the polls via political attacks.

In return, Trump has begun to attack DeSantis in familiar, slashing terms.

As the Harvard poll indicated, DeSantis continues to struggle to make an impact on a national scale.

However, there was apparent good news for the governor from the website Axios, which published the results of two polls carried out by a Republican firm.

In head-to-head matches, Public Opinion Strategies put DeSantis eight points up on Trump in Iowa, which will kick off the primary in February 2024, and level in New Hampshire, the second state to vote.

Axios said: “National polling has shown Trump significantly ahead of DeSantis, but these polls suggest DeSantis is performing better in the early states where voters pay closer attention.”

However, there was better news for Trump when respondents were asked to choose from the whole field of declared and potential contenders. Then, Trump and DeSantis were tied in Iowa while Trump led by 12 points in New Hampshire.

Other surveys have shown similar potential for anti-Trump candidates to split the vote and give the former US president the nomination without majority support.

That was what happened in 2016. Then, the Texas senator Ted Cruz won Iowa before Trump swept to victory in New Hampshire. Trump was not seriously challenged thereafter.

The MSNBC host Mehdi Hasan was among observers to seize on the Axios report, which he called “a reality check for those of us LOL-ing at DeSantis’s poor performance this past week and poor polling at a national level”, adding: “State polls matter way more than national polls. Especially in early primary states.”

But Simon Rosenberg, a Democratic strategist and pollster, warned “DeSantis world” not to get carried away by the Axios report.

Pointing to the “GOP red wave poll BS last year” – in which polling suggested big Republican midterm gains but the GOP only took the House by a small margin – Rosenberg said the Public Opinion Strategies surveys were “not nearly as good for DeSantis as Axios portrayed”.

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