GOP 2024 Hopefuls Grapple with How to Take on Trump

Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford
Former president Donald Trump boards his airplane en route to Iowa at Palm Beach International Airport on March 13 in West Palm Beach, Fla.

For months, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis – an expected 2024 Republican presidential candidate – did his best to ignore former president Donald Trump, a declared 2024 Republican candidate.

Then, on Monday, DeSantis pitter-pattered up to a sly and winking condemnation, supporting Trump by attacking Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg – who is closing in on a possible indictment of the former president – while also using the moment to note that allegations about “paying hush money to a porn star” are at the center of the investigation.

And finally – faced with an onslaught of attacks and provocations from Trump and his allies – DeSantis got more direct in an interview with Piers Morgan set to air Thursday on Fox Nation.

Photo for The Washington Post by Rachel Mummey
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) speaks on a book tour in Des Moines on March 10.

DeSantis implicitly criticized Trump’s chaotic and ego-driven management style (“The way we run the government, I think, is no daily drama”), touted his own handling of covid compared with Trump (“I would have fired somebody like Fauci,” he said, referring to Trump’s covid czar, Anthony S. Fauci) and dismissed Trump’s chosen nickname of “DeSanctimonious” for him (“You can call me whatever you want, just as long as you also call me a winner”).

“At the end of the day, as a leader, you really want to look to people like our Founding Fathers,” DeSantis said. “It’s not saying that you don’t ever make a mistake in your personal life, but I think, what type of character are you bringing? … I think the person is more about how you handle your public duties and the kind of character you bring to that endeavor.”

DeSantis’s halting three-step illustrates the Republican Party’s broader and continuing struggle with how to effectively take on Trump, the presumptive front-runner for the Republican nomination. The question of whether – and how hard – to go after Trump is particularly stark among the 2024 Republican hopefuls, underscoring the myriad risks and challenges still facing would-be rivals in attacking the de facto leader of their party.

DeSantis’s public evolution also mirrors the private discussions dominating his party in recent weeks, as large swaths of Republicans – outside groups, pollsters and strategists, presidential rivals – have scrambled to answer the question of how to handle Trump, quietly testing messages and discussing strategies to defeat him in their party’s upcoming presidential primary.

As Bragg’s possible indictment of Trump has dominated the news, Republican candidates, both declared and expected, have alighted on a range of responses to potential charges – from criticism (former New Jersey governor Chris Christie) to silence (former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, at least initially) to outspoken defense (former vice president Mike Pence and anti-woke crusader Vivek Ramaswamy).

In a Saturday radio interview, for instance, Pence – an expected 2024 contender – declared himself “taken aback” by the idea that Trump could be arrested and, referring to a special counsel probe during Trump’s presidency, said that Bragg’s investigation “reeks of the kind of political prosecution we endured in the days of the Russia hoax.”

Ramaswamy, a Republican who has already announced a 2024 presidential bid, also called Bragg’s investigation a “disastrously politicized prosecution” in a tweet Sunday, and called on several fellow Republican hopefuls “to join me in condemning the potential Trump indictment.”

And on Monday, Haley weighed in, telling Fox News that Bragg was looking to score “political points” and that any indictment would be “more about revenge than it is about justice.”

But on Wednesday, Trump also provided a stark example of the scorched earth response rivals can expect – excoriating DeSantis over Florida’s crime record, his past positions on cutting Medicare and Social Security and much more. “And we don’t want Ron as our President!” he wrote on his Truth Social media platform.

Trump has in many ways defied the rules of political gravity, and now some of those who would like to see their party move beyond him are discarding tactics that failed previously and considering a host of new options.

Some Republican operatives, donors and strategists argue that attacks on Trump’s character, like those deployed by the “Never Trump” movement, are not particularly effective, since he is already a well-known and deeply polarizing figure.

Instead, pockets of the party are considering whether to forgo trying to peel away “Make America Great Again” stalwarts – who they fear may never abandon the former president – and how to entice Republicans who voted for him twice and still hold deep affection for his presidency, but may also be ready to consider Trump alternatives.

The most effective anti-Trump messages, these Republicans and strategists say, are appeals to Trump fatigue and the idea that he may no longer be the most electable candidate; subtle nods to his age and the idea that it’s time to consider a new generation of leaders; and attacks on his record, arguing that he failed to keep many of the promises he made – such as building a wall at the nation’s southern border and having Mexico pay for it.

Frank Luntz, a pollster and communications analyst, said there is a portion of the Republican electorate that is simply exhausted from the chaos and controversy that has become all but synonymous with the Trump brand – and for that group, the best message is: “Thank you, Mr. Trump. Thank you for you service. Just go away.”

“People who try to beat Trump come in with sledgehammers when they need to be brain surgeons,” Luntz said. “All it takes is a calmer, lighter, gentler approach that expresses appreciation for his courage and convictions, but then asks, ‘But is it time to move on?'”

In February, research firms Engagious and the Schlesinger Group conducted two focus groups for The Washington Post, focusing on 14 respondents in four early caucus and primary states who they identified as persuadable Republican primary voters. Rich Thau, the president of Engagious, said that when he asked the participants what is the ideal age to become president, the average response was 51 – and when he asked what is the oldest acceptable age to become president, participants said 68.

Republicans have long attacked President Biden, 80, over his age and what they claim is his diminishing mental acuity, but some who have tested this messaging say this means Republican voters are also primed to be receptive to similar concerns about Trump, 76.

“Both of these guys are decades beyond the ideal, so Americans are ready for a new generation, and Republicans are ready for a new generation,” Thau said.

But attacking Trump is a delicate balance, especially from fellow Republicans who need to simultaneously dislodge his grip on the party while also not alienating his loyal base.

Candidates who attack Trump – even if they are simply responding to attacks from him – usually come under immediate fire from the former president and his team. “While the entire conservative movement is united against the unjust indictment of President Donald Trump, Governor DeSantis is choosing to go off half-cocked and take shots,” Trump adviser Taylor Budowich, who runs his major super PAC, said Tuesday afternoon.

“It’s his policies are great, but he’s a flawed messenger who lost to a geriatric dolt, when any other Republican would have won last time,” said a DeSantis ally, who like some others spoke on the condition of anonymity to share private thinking. “Electability is the number one issue right now. Ask any Republican in the country right now, and all they say is they want to get Joe Biden out of office, and we need someone who can definitely win.”

Pence has criticized Trump’s handling of the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, attacks on the U.S. Capitol, but otherwise has largely eschewed criticizing his former boss. Even in private, Pence has continued to tout the accomplishments of the Trump-Pence administration, people familiar with his comments said.

“Voters still have a lot of affection for his record, and they’re not as anxious to see that,” said Marc Short, a senior Pence adviser, referring to attacking Trump by name.

Photo for The Washington Post by Scott McIntyre
Former vice president Mike Pence waits to be introduced during a visit to Florida International University in Miami as part of a publicity tour for his book, “So Help Me God,” on Jan. 27.

Many Republican donors and outside groups are also in the early stages of wrestling with the most effective way to take on Trump. Officials at the conservative Club for Growth, for example, have already signaled they plan to go up on the air this spring with a large ad buy in early states attacking Trump, and the network of activist groups and donors led by billionaire Charles Koch have also said they plan to oppose Trump for his party’s nomination.

The question of how to beat Trump also dominated conversations at elite gatherings in Sea Island, Ga., Palm Beach, Fla., and Austin, in recent months, as some of the party’s top donors gathered to discuss how to most effectively spend their money. At those gatherings – sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute, the Club for Growth and Karl Rove’s group to engage Texas voters, respectively – potential and declared Republican candidates mingled with some of the party’s top benefactors.

At the Texas retreat, Christie offered a fiery denunciation of Trump and urged others in the party to call him out by name.

Calling the former president “the problem,” Christie argued that Trump “failed us on election night 2020, not by losing, but by standing in the East Room of the White House and saying the election was stolen when he had no evidence to prove that it was,” according to audio obtained by The Post.

Other likely and declared 2024 Republican candidates, including Haley and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, have argued, either overtly or obliquely, that Trump is past his prime. Like Christie, Sununu has regularly attacked Trump by name in private, while Haley has largely tried to steer clear of mentioning the former president in conversations with donors and activists, people familiar with their comments said.

Speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press” earlier this month, Sununu said that much of the party is looking for “an alternative” to Trump, who he claimed is “not going to be the nominee.”

“Thank you for your service – we’re moving on,” Sununu continued. “I just don’t believe the Republican Party is going to say the best leadership for America tomorrow is yesterday’s leadership.”

Mike Pompeo, Trump’s former secretary of state who is also considering a bid, has privately warned that the former president was erratic in office, according to people who have heard his comments, but has been less blunt publicly, offering instead an argument that it’s time to move on from the chaos of the Trump years.

“The moment for celebrity, the moment for stars, is not with us,” Pompeo said on “Fox News Sunday” earlier this month. While never referring to Trump by name, he added that the nation needs to “elect serious leaders” who are not denigrating the country, “not throwing out whoppers” and “not spending all their time thinking about Twitter.”

Trump’s team, for its part, believes the former president’s biggest weaknesses currently are fatigue with his chaos and controversies; his baseless claims that the 2020 election was stolen; and the poor showing by Republicans in the 2022 midterm elections, one top adviser said. The personality-based attacks, this person added, are less successful because concerns about Trump’s character are already “baked in the cake.”

“The message I think works against him is that there’s only one person who could lose to Joe Biden in 2024,” said a second longtime Trump adviser.

Republicans looking to beat Trump have begun considering – and in some cases testing – other messages, including some based on Trump’s record in office, according to several people familiar with the different efforts. The possible attacks include that he empowered Fauci, who became the face of covid prevention efforts and a target of right-wing anger; that Trump never finished building a wall at the nation’s southern border; and that Trump hired and elevated “woke” military generals.

Josh Holmes, a Republican strategist close with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), said Republican rivals would be smart to focus on issues Republican voters care about, including where Trump may have fallen short as president.

“He ran on building the wall and didn’t get it done,” Holmes said. “There are practical components to him having a four-year record on the issues people care about.”