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Who Will Be the GOP Presidential Candidate in 2024?
by Lionel E. Deimel

It is hard to understand why Republicans vying for the GOP presidential nomination have largely avoided criticizing front leader Donald Trump. Going after political opponents, particularly one’s strongest opponent, is an American tradition and, one would think, a logical necessity. Why aren’t Republican candidates doing that?

The conventional answer to this question is bipartite. First, Donald Trump is a nasty bully. He gleefully attacks anyone who dares criticize him, and he does it with a vengeance. Second, candidates are concerned that to disparage Trump is to alienate the former president’s myriad followers.

GOP LogoAny candidate so afraid of Trump’s wrath as to eschew any criticism of him is in the wrong business. American politics is not a game for the fainthearted. Surely, all the presidential hopefuls are familiar with the old saw If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. This might better be rephrased as If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen. As was the case in 2016, however, even the most unlikely Republicans cannot seem content to remain on the sidelines. But any candidate intimidated by an aggressive, foul-mouthed bully is simply not presidential timber, whatever his or her aspirations.

There is also the matter of Trump’s coterie of rabid followers. Attacking their leader will invariably provoke a counterattack from both the former president and his followers. Violence committed by the MAGA crowd cannot be ruled out. But, here again, courage is a prerequisite for viable candidacy.

In the primaries, Trump’s most fervent supporters will vote for him irrespective of what his opponents do or say. His challengers cannot even rely on Trump’s legal troubles to diminish his attractiveness to the MAGA crowd, as an indictment—and perhaps future indictments—seems only to increase the funds flowing into the Trump coffers. If GOP hopefuls content themselves with echoing Trump themes and criticizing one another, the result will be splitting the vote, thereby assuring that Trump will win with a substantial plurality. (That a candidate can win most primaries while losing a majority of the votes is a strong argument for using ranked-choice voting in such elections.)

It is difficult to see a winning strategy for a Trump opponent. Such a contender would have to win the votes of Republicans not committed to Trump—a difficult prospect with so many competitors—and somehow peel off a significant fraction of the Trump faithful or demoralize them into staying home on election day. This requires a compelling platform (or personality) and an effective assault on the frontrunner.

At least so far, no one is pursuing such a winning strategy. Though now considered to be Trump’s strongest opponent, Governor Ron DeSantis has offered a program to the right of Trump. It is unclear whether the nation wants to become like Florida, however. (Although DeSantis glibly declares that he will win Florida, Floridians themselves seem to be having second thoughts.) DeSantis has soft-pedaled an anti-Trump stance. Moreover, he is charismatically challenged.

Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, on the other hand, has been forthright in his attacks on Trump. He has not articulated a clear policy alternative, however, and, in any case, no one seems to be listening. Politico puts Christie in the long-shot category.

Another former governor, Asa Hutchinson, has actually suggested that, given his legal troubles, Trump should step aside. That won’t happen, of course. Hutchinson represents a more traditional Republican candidate, but it isn’t clear that GOP voters are looking for that. He is another long shot.

South Carolina senator Tim Scott is running a kind of “don’t worry, be happy” campaign. Being a nice version of Trump is not going to be an easy sell to the true believers.

The other candidates have yet to attack Trump effectively. Of course, Mike Pence is necessarily an anti-Trump candidate, since the former president nearly got him killed. He is less charismatic even than DeSantis. (Well, one could argue that last point.)

There is no need to talk much about the general election, since, barring dramatic developments—think Trump prison sentence—Trump will be the nominee. Likely, one of his challengers will become Trump’s VP choice. It will not be someone who has given Trump a hard time. My money is on Nikki Haley, and certainly not on DeSantis.

— LED, 6/29/2023

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