All hope is not dead for Donald Trump’s Republican rivals, but anyone seeking to emerge as a genuine challenger must soon begin to coalesce opposition to the ex-president to slow his chase toward a third straight GOP nomination.
A new CNN/SSRS poll showing the ex-president’s big lead steady in the first primary state of New Hampshire, an escalation of the campaign in Iowa, and frustrations among donors over a bloated field that is splitting the anti-Trump vote are injecting new urgency into the race four months before voting starts.
“We’re talking about four months. Can you believe it?” the ex-president said during a trip to Iowa on Wednesday, claiming that his polling had gone up like a “rocket ship” and boasting about how he had carried the state twice in general elections.
This is about a lot more than a horse race. In this unprecedented election, Trump’s strength raises the possibility that Republicans could chose a candidate facing four criminal trials, who could be a convicted felon by the November 2024 election and is promising, in an outpouring of autocratic rhetoric, a presidency of retribution that would test the rule of law more than his first term.
This prospect is at least part of the reason for increasing scrutiny of President Joe Biden’s campaign and prospects amid concern over his capacity to repel a fearsome Trump assault and then to fully serve a possible second term that would end when he is 86.
The state of the Republican race is this: Trump is not yet unbeatable but the conditions in which he could be beaten are still far from materializing.
The new CNN/SSRS poll in the Granite State shows some signs for optimism among Trump rivals who have so far struggled to mount a credible challenge to an ex-president beloved among the party’s base voters and movement in the race for second place.
Six in 10 voters are open to a candidate other than Trump, who leads with 39% – lower than his number in some other states and in national polls where he often gets a majority. But the perception that Trump could be beaten must be balanced against the fact that, just as in 2016, there is no dominant alternative to the ex-president.
In the poll, biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy has 13%, ahead of former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley at 12% and former New Jersey governor and vehement Trump critic Chris Christie at 11%. The poll is bad news for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis who plunged 13 points from a previous poll in July to 10%, confirming that a campaign expected to pose a real threat to Trump has eroded significantly on contact with voters. But Haley, Ramaswamy and Christie all posted large gains while Trump’s support was steady, meaning the race is stable at the top but shifting below the front-runner.
One takeaway from the poll is that there is a genuine anti-Trump block of voters in New Hampshire. A sense that many voters are disillusioned by the prospect of another election between Biden and Trump and are despairing over politics in general, animated the latest episode of a reporting project by CNN’s John King this week, which featured voters as they size up their options in the state.
But for anyone to seriously damage the ex-president, in the Granite State and elsewhere, one candidate would need to emerge in a still bloated field as the choice of almost all voters who oppose him. With four months to go, there is no sign yet of any of the chasing pack being willing to cede their own ambitions in favor of their rivals in order to stop Trump. And if Trump does not take on severe damage in the first two contests, it’s hard to see how his momentum can be halted as the race turns south and to big state primaries loaded with nominating delegates.
This is one reason why next week’s second Republican debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California will be important, because it will offer another chance for a member of the chasing bunch to break out.
Haley for instance will be seeking to build on some good reviews among some GOP voters after she was judged to have performed well in the first debate last month in Wisconsin. The New Hampshire poll may boost an impression that Haley is on the rise and with DeSantis ebbing, she could emerge as the strongest anti-Trump challenger.
That’s because Ramaswamy appears to appeal to many voters who might also like Trump. And 60% of voters in New Hampshire say they wouldn’t consider a vote for Christie, whose growth is concentrated among Democrats and independents who say they will vote in the GOP primary. This is a potential recipe for success in New Hampshire, but is unlikely to translate into a blueprint for a winning national GOP campaign.
Nominating contests in Iowa and New Hampshire often gather intensity and turn decisively in the final weeks. But the building blocks of a surge to victory need to be laid weeks and months before. Political experts often warn that “it’s early” and things can change. But in a matter of weeks, it won’t be early any more.
To that point, there is an increasing sense of unease among Republican donors who had hoped that Trump would not emerge as their nominee over the failure of the anti-Trump crop of candidates to coalesce, CNN’s Fredreka Schouten and Steve Contorno reported on Wednesday. Some major donors expressed concerns that it might already be too late to stop Trump, whose standing within his own party appears only to have been bolstered by criminal indictments over his attempt to overthrow the 2020 election, his hoarding of classified documents in his Mar-a-Lago resort and in relation to a hush money payment to an adult film star, as the ex-president claims he’s a victim of politicized persecution.
Support for Trump is so strong among Republicans that his most serious rivals have been unable to use his criminal liability, which could be a big problem in a general election, to their advantage in the primary race.
A feeling that a critical, more competitive stage of the campaign is unfolding can be seen in the increasing pace of activity in the other earliest nominating state – Iowa.
Trump, who has been running what appears to be a general election strategy in recent months – for instance snubbing the chance to debate his rivals in official Republican National Committee debates – flew into Iowa for canvas kickoff events on Wednesday and promised a blitz of future visits. The move reveals an apparent strategy designed to stamp out any resurgence by DeSantis, who is spending disproportionate time traveling to Iowa’s 99 counties in a classic gambit designed to use a Hawkeye State victory as a pivot to a national win.
“It’s a special place. We’re going to be back five or six times in the next period,” Trump said, previewing an increased Iowa schedule in October and November.
A sense of urgency is also evident in attacks by DeSantis on his former political mentor over abortion. Trump, including in an interview on “Meet the Press” on NBC on Sunday, has been trying to claim credit for building the Supreme Court majority that overturned the constitutional right to an abortion while criticizing Republicans – like DeSantis – who backed strict limits on the procedure. Trump appears to be eying a general election audience that punished Republicans in the midterms over the issue. But DeSantis has jumped at the chance to try to harm Trump with evangelical voters who are very important in the Iowa caucuses.
“He claimed to be pro-life. He spoke at the March for Life and was waxing eloquently about how everybody counts,” DeSantis said in an interview with ABC News on Wednesday. “For him to then attack people like Iowa, South Carolina, Florida, all these other states, I thought was a big mistake,” DeSantis said.
The abortion debate in Iowa could test whether Trump has so much credibility among Republican voters – especially over his three conservative Supreme Court picks – that he can adopt positions that might harm a more conventional GOP candidate. This in turn will have a significant impact on the Florida governor’s chances. If DeSantis is to pull off the kind of victory in the state that could make Trump wobble elsewhere, he will need his attacks to cut deep into Trump’s lead.
In Iowa, New Hampshire and elsewhere, the race for the Republican nomination is beginning to accelerate. But candidates must soon begin to show that they have the capacity to mount a serious challenge to the former president and show they can change the complexion of a campaign when he’s appeared all but untouchable.