Ron DeSantis’s main campaign backer began laying off staff on Wednesday, amid fresh questions about whether his presidential bid can survive.
Never Back Down, the Super PAC (independent expenditure-only political action committee) backing the Florida governor in the Republican primaries, began laying off staff in some of the next states to vote for a Republican nominee, including the key state of Nevada.
Mr DeSantis pledged to fight on after the Iowa caucus on Monday, where he came second to Donald Trump but trailed the former president by a much larger margin than expected, with just 21 per cent of the vote.
After a short campaign stop in New Hampshire, which will vote next week, Mr DeSantis planned to travel straight to South Carolina, effectively skipping the Granite State, where he is thought to have just 4 per cent support.
Never Back Down began sacking employees in several states, including Nevada, while the majority of remaining staff were told to move to South Carolina, the New York Times reported.
George Andrews, a Never Back Down staffer who had been campaigning in Iowa, said on LinkedIn he had lost his job because of “budget cuts beyond my control”.
Mr DeSantis’s disappointing result in Iowa came after he spent months building a sophisticated ground campaign and pouring millions of dollars from the Super PAC into the state. Mr Trump won the caucuses by a landslide, taking 98 of Iowa’s 99 counties and more than half of all votes cast.
On Monday night, Mr DeSantis said he had “stamped his ticket” in the state and beaten Nikki Haley, who came third, but analysts said he had failed to capture the crucial constituency of evangelical Christians required to seriously challenge Mr Trump.
One poll on Tuesday suggested that Ms Haley is now neck-and-neck with Mr Trump in New Hampshire, with her campaign buoyed by independent voters, who are also eligible to vote in the state’s Republican primary.
She has said she will not participate in any more televised debates with Mr DeSantis unless Mr Trump agrees to appear, prompting the cancellation of two planned events on CNN and ABC in New Hampshire before Tuesday’s vote.
“We’ve had five great debates in this campaign. Unfortunately, Donald Trump has ducked all of them,” Ms Haley said.
“He has nowhere left to hide. The next debate I do will either be with Donald Trump or with Joe Biden. I look forward to it.”
Mr DeSantis claimed Ms Haley was more interested in self-advancement than becoming the Republican presidential candidate.
“The reality is that she is not running for the nomination, she’s running to be Trump’s VP,” he wrote on X, formerly Twitter. “I won’t snub New Hampshire voters like both Nikki Haley and Donald Trump, and plan to honour my commitments.”
ABC News confirmed the debate had been called off. “Our intent was to host a debate coming out of the Iowa caucuses, but we always knew that would be contingent on the candidates and the outcome of the race,” a spokesman said.
CNN replaced its debate with “town hall” events where the candidates will be interviewed individually.
Although her supporters say Ms Haley now stands a serious chance of winning New Hampshire and her home state of South Carolina, it remains unclear how either her or Mr DeSantis can erode Mr Trump’s commanding lead in the contest.
In response to her polling performance, Mr Trump has ramped up his attacks on Ms Haley, using and misspelling her legal first name of “Nimarata” in an apparent attempt to highlight her Indian heritage.
“Anyone listening to Nikki ‘Nimrada’ [sic] Haley’s wacked out speech last night, would think that she won the Iowa primary. She didn’t, and she couldn’t even beat a very flawed Ron DeSanctimonious, who’s out of money, and out of hope,” Mr Trump posted online.
He has previously claimed, falsely, that Ms Haley is ineligible to run for president because of her Indian parents. As a US citizen born in the country, she fulfils all legal requirements.
Responding to the attacks on Fox News, she said: “First of all, I was born with Nikki on my birth certificate, I was raised as Nikki, I married a Haley, and so that is what my name is, so he can say or misspell or do whatever he wants.”