2024 Republicans search for lane between Trump and DeSantis

Politics

Former Vice President Mike Pence speaks to an audience about his new book, Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022, at Garden Sanctuary Church of God in Rock Hill, S.C. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard)

Prospective Republican presidential contenders are facing a dilemma: How to break into a field that has so far been dominated by former President Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. 

Trump is the only candidate as of now to have formally launched a campaign, though DeSantis is said to be closing in on a final decision. And early polling shows the two Floridians easily topping the list of 2024 contenders. 

The dynamic poses a challenge for the long list of other Republicans weighing a bid for the White House, including former Vice President Mike Pence, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, all of whom are in need of a political lane that will distinguish them from the front-runners while also resonating with the GOP base.

“I think they’re all looking for something,” said Keith Naughton, a veteran Republican strategist. “None of them really have anything. None of these candidates seem to have a real clear opening right now.”

It’s still exceedingly early in the process. The Iowa caucuses, the first-in-the-nation nominating contest, are still more than a year away, and most would-be candidates are still in the process of hiring consultants and discussing their prospects before making any official decisions.

But the political posturing has already begun. In an interview with Fox News on Thursday, Haley acknowledged that she’s close to making a decision on a White House bid, casting herself as the face of “generational change” in the country’s politics. At 51 years old, Haley is nearly 26 years Trump’s junior.

“It’s bigger than one person. And when you’re looking at the future of America, I think it’s time for new generational change. I don’t think you need to be 80 years old to go be a leader in D.C.,” Haley told Fox News. “I think we need a young generation to come in, step up, and really start fixing things.”

Haley’s not the only one angling for a White House run. Pompeo, who served as both secretary of State and CIA director under Trump, is set to embark on a tour to promote a new book, a move widely seen as laying the groundwork for a potential 2024 bid. Pompeo has been open about his ambitions, saying previously that he’ll make a decision on a White House run by this spring. 

And there’s no shortage of potential candidates. Pence has been traveling the country for months, most recently paying visits to churches in what many Republicans see as an effort to court evangelical voters amid signs that Trump’s ties to the key conservative constituency may be weakening.

Pence has also made clear that a 2024 run isn’t out of the question, telling The Hill in an interview last week that he would make a decision in the coming months about what his role in politics should be.

“We’ll make a decision I’m sure that in the months ahead about what role we might play, whether it be as a national candidate or as a voice for our conservative values,” he said.

In a sign of DeSantis’s rising status in the party, a spokesperson for South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R), another prospective presidential contender, opened up on the governor earlier this month, criticizing him for failing to push tougher abortion restrictions in Florida. DeSantis signed a 15-week ban on the procedure last year, though he has signaled that he would like to go further.

“It’s almost like the pro-lifers don’t have a candidate. I think you have some people — I think of Pence and Noem — who want to be the candidate for them,” one Republican strategist said.

Then there are Trump critics, like now-former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who has been moving toward a 2024 campaign for months. He’s argued that the GOP’s disappointing performance in last year’s midterm elections should prompt the party to reevaluate its ties to Trump, and has cast himself as a Reagan-esque alternative to the bombastic former president. 

But as it stands right now, any Republican that jumps into the race will have a lot of catching up to do if they hope to beat out Trump or DeSantis. A Morning Consult poll released this week showed Trump as the heavy favorite for the 2024 GOP nomination, scoring 48 percent support to DeSantis’s 31 percent.

No other potential candidate included in that poll — Pence, Haley and former Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), among others — managed to notch double-digit support. 

Similarly, a Harvard CAPS-Harris poll released exclusively to The Hill on Friday found Trump leading DeSantis 48 percent to 28 percent in an eight-way hypothetical primary. Pence finished in a distant third place with just 7 percent support. 

One swing-state GOP strategist and operative cautioned that the playing field could change over the next year, noting that few Republicans would have pegged Trump as the primary’s front-runner when he launched his first bid for the White House in 2015.

Still, the strategist said, there’s been little interest in anyone other than Trump and DeSantis among the GOP’s influential grassroots. 

“If you would have told me in Jan. 2015 that Donald Trump would win the Republican nomination, I would have thought you were f—— nuts,” the strategist said. “But you’re not hearing Pompeo from the grassroots. You’re not really hearing Nikki Haley from the grassroots. Trump and DeSantis are the big names that keep coming up.”

Even so, things are far from settled. Trump is still facing a long list of legal problems and investigations, as well as questions about his political instincts after several of his endorsed candidates were defeated in last year’s midterm elections. DeSantis, on the other hand, remains a relatively unknown quantity on the national stage, making his political stature at least somewhat tenuous.

Mike Hartley, an Ohio-based Republican strategist, said that it’s still too early to get a good read on the 2024 primary field and which candidates will be able to break through the noise. Ultimately, he said, Republican voters are only concerned about one thing: who can beat President Biden.

“We’re so early on,” Hartley said. “There will be a lot of ebbs and flows.”

“We’re going to go through the process. They’re going to come into the state and talk to the voters,” he added. “But in Republican voters’ minds, the first question is going to be can they beat Joe Biden in November of 2024.”

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