Donald Trump has a big lead for the GOP nomination. Can DeSantis, Pence or anyone else catch it?

WASHINGTON — A year and a half before anyone actually votes and a year before the Republican nominating convention, the GOP presidential race has been in the same place for months: a group of challengers chasing the former President Donald Trump.

Trump has built a huge lead in the polls despite — or because of — two indictments and two other ongoing investigations, while Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and other GOP candidates scramble to find ways to close the gap with the former president.

“We’re big … very, very big,” Trump told a convention of young fans Saturday night in West Palm Beach, Fla., wondering why DeSantis or any other Republican would bother running against him.

Meanwhile, DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, Senator Tim Scott, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and others are fanning out across the country seeking supporters, particularly in Iowa, which begins the nominating process with caucuses on Jan. 15.

All challengers are Also aiming for a debate on August 23, although Trump has threatened not to attend due to his lead in the polls over his Republican rivals.

When an Iowa reporter asked DeSantis how he hopes to cut Trump’s lead, the Florida governor replied, “Watch and learn.”

Among the strategies of Trump’s challengers:

Donald Trump and his challengers

Donald Trump and his challengers

Ron DeSantis: It’s Trump or me

DeSantis and his allies are pushing the idea that only he and Trump have the money, organization and supporters to win the GOP nomination. They also suggest DeSantis is a better bet in the general election against President Joe Biden, given Trump’s struggles with independent voters following his legal troubles.

Although DeSantis has said little about Trump’s indictments, he is trying to make a difference on issues important to conservative voters.

In a note to donors, the DeSantis team said “soft Trump voters and America First conservatives don’t look favorably on Trump’s gun record, deficit and expenses, transgender and her family’s warm relationship with the Saudi royal family.”

DeSantis is Trump’s closest challenger, but he’s also grappling with stagnant polls, jittery supporters and staff reshuffles.

The Real Clear Politics website’s average of recent polls as of Sunday put DeSantis at 20.6%, more than 30 percentage points behind Trump at 53%.

Pence contrasts with Trump

The former vice president, who ranks third in many polls, emphasizes the more conservative aspects of the Trump-Pence administration, while drawing distinctions from his former president on issues such as the Ukraine and the Rising Costs of Compensation Programs.

Pence also criticized Trump for pressuring him in early 2021 to reject electoral votes that elected Biden. Trump-inspired efforts to nullify the election are being investigated in Atlanta and Washington, D.C., the latter of which featured Pence’s grand jury testimony.

Like DeSantis and other candidates, Pence is emphasizing Iowa, where evangelical voters dominate.

During an appearance Friday at the Family Leadership Summit in Iowa, Pence said “we will secure our border. We will support our military. We will revive our economy and uphold our values, and we will also lead the world for freedom.”

Ramaswamy rising?

Vivek Ramaswamy, the 37-year-old businessman and first-time candidate who has made a political name for himself by attacking “woke” corporate culture, hopes to catch a wave of buzz about his underdog status.

He also backed Trump, suggesting he would forgive the former president for his legal troubles.

Trump was also complimentary of Ramaswamy. The former president invokes his name during campaign riffs in which he predicts that DeSantis will soon be passed for second place by another candidate.

“Maybe it’s Vivek,” Trump said in his speech in Florida. “Maybe… He’s fine.”

Nikki Haley: The “new generation?

The former South Carolina governor and UN ambassador is trying to gain traction in the race for the White House by portraying herself as the leader of a ‘new generation’ of Republicans, while portraying Trump as a figure of the past .

“We are 5 months from our campaign and 6 months from the Iowa caucuses,” Haley tweeted on Saturday. “Join @TeamHaley and let’s make America strong and proud again!”

The only woman in the race, Haley usually votes less than 5%. His main goal is to survive the Iowa and New Hampshire caucuses and make it to the South Carolina primary in late February.

Tim Scott: Another South Carolinian

A US senator from South Carolina and the only black Republican in that chamber, Scott is also trying to portray himself as a candidate of the future.

“I think minority voters are leaning towards the Republican Party. That’s great news,” Scott previously told USA TODAY.

And like Haley, Scott is mired deep in the polls and hopes to hang on as far as South Carolina.

Chris Christie, Trump’s attack dog

The former New Jersey governor is already using a tactic that other candidates may adopt: attacking Trump directly.

Christie, a former federal prosecutor, was particularly critical of Trump’s handover of classified documents, which were the subject of a federal indictment in June. Trump also faces a lawsuit in New York state over silent payments.

During an appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, Christie denounced Trump’s frequent claim that he is indicted because of his presidential campaign.

“He’s a liar and a coward,” Christie said, also downplaying Trump’s lead in the polls by saying there are months of campaigning left.

Christie focuses on New Hampshire, site of the first primary. He hopes that success there will propel him through the rest of the primaries, which happened to John McCain when he won the Republican presidential nomination in 2008.

Trump, challengers and debates

Christie and all of the other challengers are banking on specific events to help them catch up with Trump: Debates, though there’s no guarantee the frontrunner will be there.

Trump has repeatedly said he will likely skip the first debate scheduled for Aug. 23 in Milwaukee. He said he doesn’t want his rivals to shoot him when he is so far ahead in the polls.

Some of those challengers might not succeed either: The Republican National Committee has said candidates need at least 40,000 donors before they can take the stage.

Asa Hutchinson, Doug Burgum and Will Hurd

Burgum, the little-known governor of North Dakota is trying to entice donors by offering them gift cards for contributions.

Former U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Tex., may not join the debate because he refuses to sign a pledge of support for the eventual Republican nominee — because it could be Trump.

Hutchinson, the former governor of Arkansas, closed his appearance at the Family Leadership Summit in Iowa with a direct appeal to contributors.

“Help us get on the stage of the debate,” he said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Donald Trump has a big lead over the GOP. DeSantis, Pence, can others catch it?

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