DeSantis nears presidential campaign launch far from peak popularity but signaling a new readiness to take on Trump

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By Steve Contorno and Jeff Zeleny, CNN

(CNN) -- Once seen as ascending toward a presidential campaign with momentum in his favor, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis finds himself on the cusp of an announcement that many of his supporters wished was already behind him.

DeSantis is preparing to launch his White House bid before the end of the month, according to two sources with knowledge of the planning. His political operation is currently moving into a new headquarters in Tallahassee while a super PAC closely aligned with the Florida Republican builds out a national campaign from Atlanta. Next week, he will meet with top fundraisers in South Florida, where he is expected to signal to them that it's time to start asking their wealthy friends for checks.

Though some donors have grumbled about his recent performance and worry he's already badly damaged by Donald Trump's repeated attacks, within DeSantis' insular team of trusted advisers, the roll out of his presidential campaign is right on schedule. DeSantis vowed he wouldn't make a decision about the race until the state wrapped up its legislative session. That ended earlier this month, and DeSantis is finalizing the state budget and touring the state signing his conservative policy victories into law.

He is poised to enter the race with as much money behind him, if not more, than anyone in the race not named Trump, with the intention of breaking fundraising records on the day he enters the race, CNN previously reported. Turnout at his events, many in deeply red parts of the country where Trump has dominated, is notably strong and his appearance at local GOP fundraisers across the country helped raise more than $4.2 million in two months. Meanwhile, the buildout of the campaign has taken place for weeks absent a candidate, and though Trump currently holds a solid lead in GOP primary polls, DeSantis survived the onslaught of mudslinging without losing his status as the former president's top rival.

"The infrastructure is in place ready to launch," said Nick Iarossi, a Tallahassee lobbyist close to DeSantis. "There will be no ramp up. Everyone is anxious to get started and push back against attacks and narratives. But you can't count someone out who hasn't started. Trump tried to kill him in the cradle and that didn't work."

But the lofty expectations for his presidential candidacy have dramatically leveled off since DeSantis swept to a commanding reelection victory in Florida last fall. He is about to jump into the 2024 race in a far shakier position than most Republicans had imagined when the New York Post declared him "DeFUTURE."

As he introduces himself to Republican voters across the country, DeSantis presents his Florida record as a blueprint for a national platform. But the larger questions now center on DeSantis himself and whether he has the fortitude to go the distance and compete with Trump.

"Did he peak in January?" a Republican operative and veteran of several Florida races asked aloud, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid alienating the DeSantis team. "He must now prove that he didn't."

Mel Sembler, a longtime Republican donor based in Florida who is looking for an alternative to Trump, said he remains "crazy about" DeSantis, but is worried he missed his window.

"I think he has been focused on his reelection and focused on making an impact in Florida," Sembler said. "If he checks his polling, maybe he'll decide to wait four years."

DeSantis, 44, would enter the Republican nominating contest without a long-standing circle of trusted advisers with deep knowledge of presidential politics. Even as he is on the precipice of entering the primary, his political operation is still working to fill key roles in the nascent campaign.

On Monday, Bryan Griffin, a relatively recent addition to his executive office, announced he was resigning as press secretary, and a source said he was expected to join the campaign. Meanwhile, Phil Cox, a veteran Republican strategist who joined the governor's team to oversee his reelection campaign and was expected to be a key figure in his future efforts is no longer near the helm of DeSantis' political operation, people familiar with the matter said.

Cox did not respond to a request for comment. A source with knowledge of his role at Never Back Down, a super PAC supporting DeSantis' political aspirations, described him as an "unpaid adviser." Generra Peck, who once worked with Cox and served as campaign manager for DeSantis' reelection, is expected to assume the same role on his presidential campaign.

DeSantis, who keeps a notoriously tight circle and is generally distrustful of Beltway operatives, is wary of growing too large too quickly, a source close to the campaign told CNN. He has taken note of past presidential efforts that saw resources sucked up by high-priced consultants and subcontractors who find work each cycle regardless of the outcome.

"He is looking for people not only aligned with him on policy but people who are serious about the mission," the source said. "He thinks he's on a mission from God, and he wants people who are going to give up their lives for the next year, work 18 hour days and leave behind their families to go change the world."

Never Back Down has effectively functioned as a campaign-in-waiting. The organization has put staff in place in the first four nominating states and is rapidly expanding to include the first 18 states in anticipation of a protracted primary battle with Trump. On Saturday, the super PAC rolled up to Rep. Randy Feenstra's picnic, where DeSantis was the featured guest, on the maiden voyage of the "DeSantis for President" bus and the group lined the entrance with "DeSantis '24" signs.

But simmering tensions between the group and the governor's aides in Tallahassee have shined a light on the challenges awaiting the nascent political operation.

For his part, DeSantis has recently signaled to supporters and donors that he has heard the concerns about his readiness to take on Trump. DeSantis recently met with many of the party's biggest donors over the course of several meetings in the governor's mansion, where they met his staff and received a presentation understood to be the outline of a pitch to voters, according to a source with knowledge of the meetings. Long resistant to the mainstream press, his political operation has recently made overtures to national media and local reporters where he is visiting.

He also rolled out three dozen endorsements from Iowa state lawmakers ahead of his visit to the state. It was the result of a concerted effort to enlist more local support after appearing out-maneuvered by Trump last month, when several Florida Republicans in the US House backed the former president before and after DeSantis' planned visit to DC.

Though he continues to dodge Trump's attacks, DeSantis has laid out the stakes in the upcoming primary in terms that make more clear how he intends to take on the former president.

"If we make 2024 a referendum on Joe Biden and his failures and we provide a positive alternative for the future of this country, Republicans will win across the board," DeSantis told Iowa caucus voters in Sioux Center. "If we do not do that, if we get distracted, if we focus on the election in the past or on other side issues then I think the Democrats are going to beat us again and I think it will be very difficult to recover from that defeat."

Later that day, DeSantis appeared to one-up Trump, making an unannounced visit to a BBQ joint in Des Moines -- minutes from where the former president planned to hold a rally before he canceled due to threat of weather. He and wife, Casey, squeezed through a crowd that had quickly assembled for a last-minute meet and greet, and the encounter was quickly pushed out on social media by his allies.

It was only a short detour on his way out of Iowa Saturday night, but the 20-minute stop seemed to trigger a collective sigh of relief among supporters who were eagerly waiting for DeSantis to demonstrate he was up to the challenge.

"It reminded a lot of insiders that when he's able to engage, this is going to be a very different race," one Republican consultant who asked not to be named said.

After receiving criticism for immediately ducking out of events after speaking, DeSantis now signs autographs and takes pictures with attendees long after his program ends. During a Saturday event with Iowa Republicans in Cedar Rapids, DeSantis was joined by his wife, Casey DeSantis, who talked about her husband as a father and presented a softer image of the conservative known for his brash style and hardened demeanor.

The makeover, though, remains a work in progress. Asked by Iowa Republican Party Chairman Jeff Kaufmann during Saturday night's event what makes him laugh and what makes him tear up, DeSantis dryly replied, "Probably the kids in both instances," before matter-of-factly listing their ages.

But at an event in Peoria, Illinois, on Friday, state Rep. Dan Caulkins said he has noticed a marked shift in the governor's attitude from an appearance in the state earlier this year, which Caulkins said "wasn't really all that inspiring."

"Obviously, I think he's heard the message that he needs to be more accessible, that he needs to be in with people and connecting with people," Caulkins said. "It's hard to stand up on a stage behind a roster and really connect. I saw that difference today, where he made a conscious effort to come out to talk to people, shake hands, take pictures, and I think he's becoming a better politician."

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