The race for the Republican presidential nomination, once a two-way battle between former President Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, is increasingly crowded.
Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only black Republican in the Senate and a favorite of many GOP donors, declared his candidacy last week. A few nights later, DeSantis belatedly made his own candidacy official in a chaotic Twitter event. This brought the number of major candidates to six, with more expected to join soon.
Trump commands a dominant position in the polls, but he is attracting serious rivals who think he can be beaten. Over the course of a year-long campaign, a lot can change: Eight years ago, at this point in the 2016 contest, Trump was the favorite of just 4% of GOP voters.
The growing number of participants is good news for the frontrunner, who is benefiting from a fragmented opposition as he did in 2016. But it’s also good news for Republican voters, who not only have more candidates among which ones to choose, but also more ideas. about their party’s post-Trump future – even if it may not happen until 2028.
“Are we going to continue to be a populist party like Trump has been pushing, or are we going to go back to being a more conservative party?” GOP strategist Alex Conant said of the primary.
To no one’s surprise, Trump is offering four more years of the grievance-fueled politics that won him his first term. He promised his followers, “For those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.”
As president, Trump broke with Republican doctrine on Social Security and Medicare, promising never to cut benefits. On free trade, he declared himself “a man of tariffs”, and on foreign policy, he criticized traditional alliances and approached Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But he stuck to traditional GOP policies on other issues, including lower taxes, even for the wealthy; lighter environmental and safety regulations for businesses; and tougher restrictions on abortion.
Trump’s rivals have adopted most of his policies, but with variations that fall into three rough categories:
Asset 2.0: DeSantis has offered a hardline version of Trumpism that focuses on “culture war” issues, denouncing what he calls “the woke-mind virus.”
He endorsed a state law banning abortion after six weeks, a measure Trump suggested was “too tough.”
He has championed laws banning gender-affirming health care for transgender minors and classroom teaching about sexual orientation.
And he attacked the Walt Disney Co. over its policy positions, a battle Trump derided as misguided.
Trump Light: Scott, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, and former Vice President Mike Pence (who hasn’t officially announced) also promote most Trumpian policies, but in a kinder, softer tone.
Scott is the clearest example, calling for a return to the optimistic big-tent conservatism perfected by Ronald Reagan more than a generation ago.
Republicans must choose between “grievance and greatness,” the senator said in his announcement last week.
“We need a president who doesn’t just persuade our friends and base,” he said. “We have to have compassion for people who disagree with us.”
Unlike Trump and DeSantis, Scott, Haley and Pence have all called for a strong US commitment to NATO and Ukraine.
Trump criticism: Former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and current New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu are the main renegades in this group. All three are staunch conservatives, but all have condemned Trump’s attempt to cancel the 2020 presidential election.
“Donald Trump has a moral responsibility for what happened on January 6,” said Hutchinson, the only one of the three to announce his candidacy. “Whenever you look at what he wants to do as president, it’s more about getting revenge on his political enemies than leading our country.”
Christie called Trump “Putin’s puppet.”
All three seem out of step with their party’s voters and barely register in the polls. In a CBS News survey last month, 61% of Republican voters said they wanted a candidate who affirmed their belief that Trump won in 2020.
But even if these renegades go nowhere in the polls, they could play an important role in the election.
While DeSantis, Scott, Haley and Pence have been reluctant to confront Trump directly — even regarding his willingness to violate the Constitution when he sought to overturn the 2020 election — they headed for a Catch-22: They want to displace the former president as leader of their party, but they don’t want to alienate his supporters.
That leaves them claiming they’d make better candidates than Trump, but unable to explain precisely why — a tough way to make a sale.
It’s the same dilemma the GOP faced in 2016, when a stage full of candidates hoped that Trump’s candidacy would fail with no one pushing.
It will not happen. If the favorite needs to be taken down, someone will have to do it. Hutchinson, Christie and Sununu seem ready to give it a try.
For that, they deserve some admiration, whether you agree with their point of view or not.
It will be a thankless mission with little chance of success and a guarantee of abuse. But it can also be an event too rarely seen in a presidential campaign: a decision to put principles before ambition.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.