GOP rivals walk high-wire when it comes to criticizing Trump

Republicans eyeing presidential bids in 2024 are trying to strike a very delicate balance when it comes to weighing in on former President Trump, aiming to criticize his actions and rhetoric without appearing to attack the man himself and alienate his supporters.

The high-wire act was on full display in recent days as Republicans, including some who are weighing a 2024 campaign, were quick to condemn antisemitism after Trump dined with a white nationalist, but in many cases qualified their criticism or avoided going after Trump altogether.

Former Vice President Mike Pence called on Trump to apologize for having dinner with Nick Fuentes, an antisemite and racist who joined the former president and the rapper Ye last week. Ye, formerly Kanye West, has also espoused antisemitic views in recent months.

“With that being said, as I point out in the book as well, I don’t believe Donald Trump is an antisemite. I don’t believe he’s a racist or a bigot. I would not have been his vice president if he was,” added Pence, who has said he will consider whether to run for president in the coming months.

Another former Trump administration official mulling a White House bid is former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who didn’t even go as far as naming Trump in apparently condemning his controversial dinner guests. Instead, he issued a broadly worded tweet calling antisemitism “a cancer” and vowing to “stand with the Jewish people in the fight against the world’s oldest bigotry.”

The responses were emblematic of how Republicans hoping to take the mantle from Trump in 2024 will have to deal with the former president and his controversies. 

Dedicated Trump supporters still make up a sizable portion of the GOP electorate, and peeling away at least some of those voters will be critical for any candidate hoping to win the nomination.

Candidates will need to find a way to simultaneously show deference to the former president while establishing a difference between their vision for the country and Trump’s. And that’s where things can get tricky.

“That’s going to be the same tightrope that every Republican in Congress walked for the last four years, but now the tightrope is a lot higher,” said Alex Conant, who worked on Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) 2016 presidential campaign. “Presidential campaigns are the Super Bowl of politics, and everything is scrutinized a lot more.”

“I think if you’re trying to run as a presidential candidate without alienating his base that’s defined Republican politics for the last four years, it’s going to be all that much harder because of the increased scrutiny,” Conant added.

A Quinnipiac University poll conducted after Trump announced his 2024 candidacy found 70 percent of Republicans believe Trump has mainly had a positive impact on the party. The poll also found 79 percent of Republicans consider themselves supporters of the “Make America Great Again” movement Trump founded, while 16 percent of Republicans do not.

A Pew Research poll released in mid-November found 60 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents feel warmly toward Trump, down from 67 percent in July 2021.

The data reflects how important Trump and his movement are in capturing a majority of support within the modern Republican Party. It also shows why many officials are treading carefully. 

Pompeo used a speech earlier this month to the Republican Jewish Coalition to take veiled swipes at Trump, saying the GOP needed to focus more on policy and values and less on personality and celebrity. But at no point has he actually chastised his former boss by name. 

Nikki Haley, who served as Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, similarly called for the party to look toward a new generation of leadership, but refrained from explicitly blaming Trump for the party’s midterm losses.

Even Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), whom many in the party view as perhaps the most viable alternative to Trump in 2024, has steered clear of responding to the former president’s attacks in recent weeks, even as they grew more personal.

Pence is perhaps the most vivid example of a Republican trying to strike a balance with Trump. He often speaks proudly of the accomplishments of the “Trump-Pence administration” on tax cuts, trade, energy and foreign policy. In his new memoir, he refers to Trump as his friend and defends him over numerous controversies, attributing it to hysteria among Democrats or the media.

But Pence has broken with Trump on one major issue: The Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, when some rioters called for Pence to be hanged after he resisted Trump’s entreaties to overturn the 2020 election results. Pence has said those events fractured their relationship, and he has said there will be better alternatives to Trump in 2024.

“If anybody has a lane here of how they can campaign, it’s Mike Pence,” said Doug Heye, a former spokesperson for the Republican National Committee. “He can say, ‘I backed the administration and worked to push every accomplishment,’ and then say, ‘However,’ and everybody understands the however. But for some reason, he seems to be unwilling to really go there.”

The balancing act has even extended to those running for certain positions within Congress.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who after the Jan. 6 attack said Trump bore some responsibility, has been careful not to alienate the former president as he tries to navigate the race to become the next House Speaker. McCarthy must satisfy both moderate Republicans and staunch Trump loyalists like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) to win the vote.

Asked Tuesday about Trump’s dinner, McCarthy said that while nobody should be spending time with Fuentes, Trump had condemned his ideology. When a reporter noted Trump had not done so, McCarthy responded that he personally condemned it.

With Trump already in the 2024 race, Pompeo, Haley, Pence and DeSantis will be under a microscope with how they respond to Trump’s actions and rhetoric.

Strategists believe the candidates in the best position to capture the party’s support without turning off Trump voters are those who have been able to build a brand outside of their ties to the Trump administration.

“I think the people that have done it most successfully, they forge their own brands like Ron DeSantis or Glenn Youngkin, and so their appeal is clearly separate from Trump,” Conant said, referring to Virginia’s GOP governor. 

“It’s not based on their opposition to Trump or support of Trump, it’s based on their own strengths as an individual. You want to run on Trump’s policies and reject the personality.”

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