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New Hampshire showdown: Why Trump is connecting with voters and Haley and DeSantis have not

Howard Kurtz shares his insight on why Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis have not reached the same level of support as former President Donald Trump in the 2024 presidential primaries.

I could give you 30 different reasons why Ron DeSantis flamed out before today’s New Hampshire primary.

Plenty of media folks are delighting in kicking him when he’s down – worst campaign of all time and so on – and his relentlessly negative coverage, augmented by his own mishandling of the media, is a factor.

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But it comes down to something more existential.

One exchange on my show, about Donald Trump, has stuck with me.

I was talking about both MSNBC and CNN dumping out of Trump’s Iowa victory speech, and the former president declaring this was so unfair that NBC and CNN (which does not have a federal license) should be taken off the air.

Now I agree with Trump on the substance–and so does new CNN boss Mark Thompson, who told his staff the network should have carried more of the speech, according to the New York Times–but not on the remedy. Networks shouldn’t be kicked off the air because a president doesn’t like the coverage. 

I asked my liberal “Media Buzz” guest, Leslie Marshall, about Trump’s threat, and she said his supporters “want to be entertained by him using nicknames for everyone,” or in the case of mocking Nikki Haley’s Indian name, “racial shading.”

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Trump, like him or loathe him, is an entertainer. He’s got that New York timing. He may ramble, but he puts on a show. What journalists hear as authoritarian language, dictator for one day, his loyalists view as shtick.

When Trump was indicted four times, media types called him a threat to democracy, but it boosted him in the polls.

For the record, Marshall said later that “Ron DeSantis clearly does not have that likability factor.”

Now you can call the Florida governor a hard worker, a policy wonk, a committed conservative with a strong record in his state. But he’s a serious and sober guy, not particularly entertaining, and he doesn’t like talking about himself, for instance that he served in the military in Iraq. 

One thing DeSantis and Haley, who is a very disciplined, stick-to-the script campaigner, is that neither has much of a sense of humor. Neither one is “entertaining.”

Now the counter-argument here is that government is serious business, that this isn’t a vaudeville show and policies affect all Americans. But first you have to win an election, and making a connection with the voters has always been crucial, especially in the television age.

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Meanwhile, with Haley trailing Trump by double digits in most polls, the media are now focusing on whether the former president, at 77, is mentally confused. This is an obvious attempt to even the scales a bit with President Biden, who has long been known for gaffes and traces of a stutter but has at 81 clearly appeared more frail and sometimes mixed-up than three years ago.

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So now there’s a concerted effort, especially on some MSNBC shows, to paint Trump as losing it as well.

Past glitches – such as saying Obama when he meant Biden, saying Biden could be starting World War II – didn’t get much traction.

But when Trump, at some length, mentioned Nikki Haley’s name three times and then said she was responsible for security on Jan. 6 and turned down his offer of 10,000 soldiers, he was clearly talking about Nancy Pelosi. (She disputes that story, by the way.)

And that obvious misstatement gave Haley an opening to question his “mental fitness,” more sharply than in her standard riff about not wanting two 80-year-olds running for president.

This is the kind of aggressive attack that Haley should have been making long before the final weekend before the voting. She said yesterday that the entire “media elite” was urging her to back out.

Just when the primary finally gets entertaining, Haley, the last woman standing, is still trailing Trump by double digits in most polls – and this feels like too little too late.

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