NEW YORK (AP) — As he considers another run for the White House, polls show the former president donald trump he is the most popular figure in the Republican Party. But it was not always like this.
Competing at one point against a dozen rivals for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016, Trump won only about a third of the vote in early swing states. He even lost the Iowa caucuses, which kick off the nomination process.
However, he was able to prevail because those in the party who opposed his brand of divisive politics were never able to unite around a single rival to confront him. And with Trump considering another run for the White House as soon as this summer, the same dynamic could repeat itself.
With a growing slate of candidates preparing for their own presidential runs, even a Trump diminished by two impeachments and growing legal vulnerabilities could command a commanding position in a fractured, multi-candidate Republican primary.
“I’m afraid it could end the same way 2016 did, which was basically everyone thought everyone else should get out,” said Republican strategist Mike DuHaime, who advised former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s campaign that year. “I think every major candidate realized that he or she would have a better chance against Trump one-on-one. But of course each person thought that he or she should be the one to take that photo and no one stepped out of the way. … And then it was too late.”
Anxiety mounts as a growing list of potential rivals take increasingly brazen steps.giving high-profile speeches, running ads, courting donors, and making repeated visits to early voting states.
That group now includes more than a dozen potential candidates, including Trump’s former Vice President Mike Pence, his former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Senators Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton, Rick Scot and Tim Scott, all of whom he could run on. the policies of the former president. In the anti-Trump lane, figures like Rep. Liz Cheney and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan are raising their profiles.
Meanwhile, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is increasingly seen as Trump’s heir apparent, even by the former president’s most loyal supporters, and Trump’s allies see him as their most formidable potential challenger.
While some, like former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, have said they won’t challenge Trump if he goes ahead with a run, others, like Christie, seem up for the fight, even if they appear to be long-shot contenders.
“I’m definitely thinking seriously about it. I probably won’t make any decisions until the end of the year,” Christie said in a recent interview.
“For me, it’s about the party needing to go in a new direction from a personality perspective, and continuing to have someone who can bring strong leadership, tough leadership, that the country needs, but doesn’t have all the the rest. accompanying drama,” he said. “I’m hearing the same things from donors as from voters: that they’re very concerned that we can’t put ourselves in a position to do anything but the good of the country.”
Pompeo, who has had a busy travel schedule and plans to return to Iowa this summer, said in a recent interview that he has spent time reading and listening to speeches by former President Ronald Reagan as he prepares for a possible run.
“We are preparing to stay in the fight,” he said in an interview last month as he courted evangelical Christians at a gathering in Nashville, Tennessee.
He said he and his wife would sit down after the midterm elections and “think and pray and decide where to best serve. It could be running again for elected office. We can choose a different path. But we’re not going to walk away from these things that I’ve been working on for 30 years. They matter too much.
Meanwhile, he outlined a possible path in the same mold as Trump.
“It was a disruptor that was most needed in 2016, there’s no question about it,” Pompeo said. And now the task is to take that set of understandings, that set of principles, defend them and build on them. And it’s going to take a lot of work to do that, leaders of real strength and character to do that.”
The increasingly open conversation comes as Trump faces a cascade of escalating legal problems.
the congressional committee The investigation into the deadly January 6 insurrection has revealed increasingly damaging information about Trump’s final weeks in office, while the Justice Department has launched its own sprawling investigation. In Georgia, the prosecutor investigating Trump’s potentially illegal meddling in the 2020 state election last week intensified its efforts citing members of Trump’s inner circle. And in New York, Trump, his namesake son and his daughter Ivanka have agreed to answer questions under oath starting next week in the New York attorney general’s civil investigation into their business practices.
Mick Mulvaney, a former South Carolina congressman who served as Trump’s White House acting chief of staff, said the moves suggested potential candidates “might see a vacancy where it didn’t exist two months ago.”
“Trump fatigue could be a real thing,” he said, with voters wondering if, if they vote for another candidate, “they can get the same policies without all the baggage.”
At the same time, Trump has seen some of his endorsed primary candidates falter. Those who have won, including Ohio Republican Senate candidate JD Vance and Pennsylvania Republican Senate candidate Mehmet Oz, have done so with about 30% of the vote, meaning two-thirds of voters party members opposed Trump’s picks.
“I don’t think anyone underestimates Trump. There is a reason he is the most sought-after endorsement in every Republican primary,” Republican strategist Alex Conant said. “That said, I think there is a recognition that many Republican voters are looking to the future and ready for what’s next.”
To what extent remains an open question. During a trip to Iowa this week, Arkansas Sen. Cotton declined to weigh in on Trump’s position. But he said he hoped to be “an effective national leader, not only for my party but for the American people in my role in the Senate and any other future role that I may play.”
Still, he argued, candidates should accept Trump’s legacy.
“I know that Donald Trump is very popular with our voters who appreciate the successes he achieved over four years in a very hostile environment. They don’t want Republicans running against that legacy, because they see that legacy as a great success,” he said Thursday in Cambridge, Iowa.
Meanwhile, Trump continues to push forward with his own events.
On Friday night, he campaigned in Las Vegas alongside Adam Laxalt, his choice for the Nevada Senate. And on Saturday night, he will hold a rally in Anchorage, Alaska, to campaign with Republican Kelly Tshibaka, whom he endorsed in her race against US Sen. Lisa Murkowski, and others, including former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who is now is running for Congress.
Conant said it made sense for the candidates to keep testing the waters for now.
“Many potential candidates are realizing that 2024 may be their last best chance, regardless of what Trump does,” he said. “There’s a very vulnerable Democrat in the White House, the Republicans are likely to win, and if it’s not Trump, they’re basically sidelined for the next 10 years.”
Still, Conant, who served as communications director for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential bid, noted the similarities.
“It seems that it is becoming more and more clear that there will be a lot of people running for president. And while I think there is an appetite for something different, the alternative to Trump needs to unite around one candidate,” she said. “That never happened in 2016. And it might not happen in 2024.”
__ Associated Press writers Steve Peoples in New York and Tom Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.