By Nathan Layne
LACONIA, New Hampshire (Reuters) -As Florida Governor Ron DeSantis took his presidential pitch to Iowa and New Hampshire this week, it was his wife's presence and message that stood out to some Republican voters as a potential asset for his 2024 campaign.
Casey DeSantis, a former TV broadcaster who has been credited by DeSantis and others around him as his closest political adviser, has combined a fierce defense of her husband's record as governor with anecdotes about the challenges of raising their three children, ages 3, 5 and 6.
Some Republican voters in the early voting states said they viewed her personal story of overcoming breast cancer as uplifting and believed she could help soften the perception of her husband, who has been criticized as stiff and lacking in charisma.
"She is a very strong woman," said Lisa Teeman, a 62-year-old retired IT professional who attended a DeSantis campaign event in the blue-collar New Hampshire city of Laconia on Thursday. "I think she can gain votes for him."
Casey DeSantis is emerging as a pivotal figure in her husband's nascent campaign, and her prominence on the trail could mark a sharp contrast with Republican front-runner Donald Trump.
The former president typically holds rallies and other events without his wife, former first lady Melania Trump, and his daughter Ivanka has said she will not participate in his bid for a rematch with Democratic President Joe Biden in 2024.
Jeanette Hoffman, a Republican political consultant, said Casey DeSantis, 42, and her husband also come across as young and energetic compared with the older Bidens.
"She's definitely an asset to his campaign," Hoffman said. "I'm not sure how much of a difference it will make in the primary, but the campaign is smart to use her as an effective surrogate."
Reuters/Ipsos polling conducted on May 9-15 showed Trump is backed by 49% of Republicans, with Ron DeSantis in a distant second place at 19%.
Casey DeSantis has played a role in her husband's elections in the past. She organized the "Mamas for DeSantis" effort during the governor's re-election campaign last year.
It focused on supporting his education and parents’ rights agenda, which includes prohibiting classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation for most public school children, and eliminating funding for diversity and inclusion programs at public universities.
At DeSantis' kickoff rally in Des Moines, Iowa, on Tuesday, Casey DeSantis told the crowd she was there “to fight on behalf of the mamas across the country."
In Laconia on Thursday, she defended her husband's actions in Florida, noting he had resisted pressure to keep intact more restrictive pandemic measures. She said his efforts were necessary to "protect and defend the idea of America," without ever adopting his harsh rhetoric against the left.
"He doesn't cower. He never takes the path of least resistance. He always stands up for what's right," she said in remarks that elicited a mixture of laughter and applause.
Afterward, Casey DeSantis stayed in the main hall longer than her husband, greeting voters and posing for pictures.
"She just came across as very warm, very caring, very supportive, very intelligent," said Suzanne Nelson, president of a women's club in New Hampshire that works to support Republican candidates. "I like what I heard from him, but I think she could make a difference."
Doug Lambert, vice chair of the Republican Party in New Hampshire's highly conservative Belknap County, said he was impressed with her focus on issues facing children and families. He said her speech had helped solidify his support for the governor.
"Tell me that's not central casting first lady material," Lambert said. "She's the real deal."
(Reporting by Nathan Layne in New Hampshire and James Oliphant in IowaEditing by Colleen Jenkins, Christopher Cushing and Matthew Lewis)