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Ron DeSantis’s recent mis-steps on the campaign trail for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024 have created an opening for another candidate to emerge as Donald Trump’s top rival within the party, potentially reshaping the race for the White House in the coming weeks.
Ahead of next week’s first Republican presidential debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the Florida governor has continued to lose ground in national polls of the party’s primary voters and struggled to make big gains against the former president in crucial battlegrounds such as Iowa and New Hampshire.
This has buoyed the hopes of other candidates — particularly Vivek Ramaswamy, the biotech entrepreneur who has rapidly risen to third place in national Republican polls in recent weeks, as well as Tim Scott, the South Carolina senator who has jumped into third place in Iowa polls.
“There are any number of these candidates that might pop. It really depends on what kind of debate performance they put on, and how well they campaign, and how good their team is,” said Whit Ayres, the Republican pollster.
Memos leaked by a political strategy firm associated with DeSantis’s super Pac, Never Back Down, on Thursday showed strategists advising DeSantis to “take a sledgehammer” to the fast-talking Ramaswamy on the debate stage — and defend Trump if others attack.
Meanwhile, DeSantis’s biggest threat on the airwaves may be coming from the well-funded Scott campaign. This week it said it would be spending $8mn on an advertising blitz in the critical early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire — on top of a $40mn ad campaign funded by the senator’s affiliated super Pac.
Beverly Hutchinson, a 79-year-old retired deputy sheriff from Oskaloosa, Iowa, said TV ads supporting Scott were already “everywhere you turn” as she visited the state fair in Des Moines last Saturday. “I like what he says. If you commit a crime, you pay for it. If you need money, you work for it. I like his values. He seems so down to earth,” Hutchinson said.
Scott has cast himself as the more optimistic Republican candidate in the race, and sought to appeal to the evangelical voters who are often disproportionately influential in Iowa. “I recognise that America is great because America is good, and the goodness of America can be found in the pages of our foundation, the Judeo-Christian foundation,” he said this week during a visit to the state.
Ramaswamy has gained ground on the back of his youth — he is 38, DeSantis is 44 and all the other top Republican candidates are older — and a form of conservatism that condemns companies’ efforts to promote diversity and inclusion and environmentalism, and is isolationist on foreign policy.
Earlier this week, he suggested the US would only support Taiwan in fending off a Chinese invasion until 2028 or when America had achieved “semiconductor independence”, and he declared on Friday on MSNBC that Ukraine was “like a client state” of the US and Washington should be able to force a “Korean war-style armistice” on Kyiv.
Even with different challengers to Trump rearing their heads, the former president is still the clear frontrunner for the nomination, despite the multiple criminal indictments he faces.
“It is Trump’s to lose,” said Kevin Madden, a senior partner a Penta Group, a Washington consultancy, and a senior adviser to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. Trump has not announced yet whether he will appear at the Republican debate next week, but he and his legal troubles could still dominate the discussion, making it hard for his rivals to distinguish themselves.
“Even if Trump is not there, Trump will . . . be the centre of attention anyway,” said Ayres.
Doug Heye, a longtime Republican strategist and former spokesperson for the Republican National Committee, argues the field is unlikely to change meaningfully unless the other candidates start making a clear argument for why Trump should not be the nominee.
“It will not be competitive if everyone continues to campaign the way that they are today,” Heye said. “We have a clear frontrunner who has been indicted in four different jurisdictions, 91 indictments, and with [few] exceptions, none of the candidates want to point out that might really hurt Republicans’ chances to win.”
Even so, nearly all Republican operatives agree on one thing: the only way for a non-Trump candidate to succeed is for most of the others to eventually drop out of the race. Otherwise, they risk a repeat of 2016, when a fractured field allowed Trump to win the party’s nomination with a plurality of support.
As well as DeSantis, Ramaswamy and Scott, Nikki Haley, the former US ambassador to the UN, Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor, and Mike Pence, the former vice-president, remain in the race, along with several other candidates with very low polling numbers.
“Ultimately, there is only really room for one Trump alternative,” said Madden. “They are all going to have to look around at some point and say: if it’s not me, it has got to be so and so. That will be the real question . . . Are they all willing to get behind one candidate?”
Ayres agreed: “It doesn’t matter how many people start. It matters how many people stay in when they have no chance.”
Additional reporting by Joanna Kao and James Politi