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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Eyeing DeSantis, Trump readies for a long primary battle

Kari Lake, former Republican candidate for Arizona governor, speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., on Friday, March 3, 2023.

By Shane Goldmacher, Michael C. Bender and Maggie Haberman

Inside the MAGA-clad corridors of this week’s Conservative Political Action Conference, the politics of the Republican Party seemed almost unchanged from the pinnacle of Donald Trump’s presidency. Sequin-wearing superfans jostled for selfies with whichever member of the Trump family happened to be nearby. Chants of “We love Trump!” rang out in the halls.

But outside the confines of the friendly gathering, Trump and his campaign have begun adjusting to the new reality of 2024: The former president may be the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, but he is no longer the singular leader of his party.

After a fitful start, the Trump operation is actively preparing for the possibility of a drawn-out 2024 primary. That means laying the groundwork to compete in a potential fight over delegates that could extend deep into next year. And it means shadowboxing with his ascendant but not-yet-official challenger, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, over donors and endorsements from inside their shared home state and beyond.

This is grunt work Trump was slow to undertake in his celebrity-powered but scattershot campaign in 2016. In 2020, he used his incumbency to scare off any serious challenges.

On the third time around, the Trump campaign’s focus on the traditional nuts and bolts is an acknowledgment of the race’s expected competitiveness, despite his unmatched standing as a former president and an early edge in the polls. But the threat of indictment hanging over the former president is just one reason that 2024 could unfold in the most untraditional of ways.

Trump said Saturday that even indictments would not spur his exit from the race as he maligned prosecutors eyeing him in Georgia and New York. His address to CPAC, the annual showcase of right-wing activists and energy, demonstrated one element of his continued political strength: the loyalty of vocal activists angry with the old guard of the party.

“I am your warrior. I am your justice,” Trump said in a speech laced with grievances that stretched more than 90 minutes. “And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.”

The speech was just Trump’s fourth public event since his campaign began almost 16 weeks ago. But he is now ramping up his public schedule, with planning underway for his first major 2024 rally and two policy speeches this month, according to two people familiar with the planning.

Notably, DeSantis, who is expected to run but has not declared his intentions yet, skipped CPAC, instead setting out on a multistate tour to promote his new book about his leadership in Florida as a national model. On Sunday, DeSantis will deliver a speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California about his vision for the party.

Both men have trips planned to Davenport, Iowa, in the next two weeks — visiting the state that begins the nominating process.

“President Trump is still the leading candidate,” said Charlie Gerow, a Republican strategist and the vice chair of CPAC. “But it’s a much more wide-open race than it has been in the past.”

Trump won the annual straw poll at CPAC by a wide margin, and for the third consecutive year, DeSantis was his closest rival. Trump basked in his victory and vowed to “finish what we started.”

“We had a Republican Party that was ruled by freaks, neocons, globalists, open-border zealots and fools,” Trump declared. “But we are never going back to the party of Paul Ryan, Karl Rove and Jeb Bush.”

Ryan, the former House speaker, has recently spoken out against Trump and sits on the board of Fox News, a network whose lack of coverage of late has frustrated the Trump team. Bush, the former Florida governor and Trump’s rival in 2016, has spoken favorably about DeSantis.

In public and in private, Trump has already begun taking swipes at DeSantis, though he did not mention him Saturday. Trump’s campaign spent a small sum this week to run its first Facebook ads aimed at DeSantis, including one with a picture of both men and the caption: “Pictured: An Apprentice Learning from the Master.”

DeSantis has mostly ignored the taunting, although during an appearance on Fox News, he took an oblique shot at the infighting that plagued Trump’s White House by talking about how his governorship “didn’t have a single leak.”

The shift in the political dynamics can be seen clearly in the Trump operation’s nascent delegate strategy.

Before 2020, the Trump campaign successfully played the role of the party establishment. From their perch at the White House, his aides shaped state parties’ rules to make it harder for challengers to accumulate delegates. The goal — which they achieved — was to strangle any primary challenges before they could develop.

Heading into 2024, the Trump team’s outlook is very different. With memories of the 2016 efforts to stop Trump’s victory in mind, they have been canvassing state parties to hunt for opportunities to shape convention and delegate rules to Trump’s advantage.

Although people involved in the effort said no lobbying for rule changes has occurred, the Trump team has begun calling officials of state parties and has dispatched staff members to attend some party gatherings.

The Trump campaign isn’t alone in preparing for a delegate fight. Other prominent Republicans, including Ken Cuccinelli, a former Virginia attorney general and a top delegate expert, have been discussing amendments to the delegate rules, according to a person familiar with the matter. Cuccinelli said he was not publicly committed to a candidate and declined to comment further.

There is no modern precedent for a former president’s competing in a contested primary, making it difficult to project Trump’s political strength going forward.

But there are signs of his diminished influence in the party. The former president’s grassroots fundraising has dropped off considerably: In 2021, when Trump spoke at CPAC in his first major speech after the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, he raised $3.2 million online in the 48 hours around the speech.

He raised roughly half as much online — $1.6 million — the day of and the day after his 2024 announcement late last year, according to federal records.

What’s more, there is a lack of public support so far from some of his longest-serving aides. On a call weeks ago, Trump asked Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders of Arkansas, his former White House press secretary, to endorse him, and she replied that she would not yet do so, according to two people briefed on the discussion, who asked not to be named discussing the private call. Trump was disappointed but not angry in response on the call, the people said.

An aide to the governor did not respond to a request for comment, and Steven Cheung, a spokesperson for Trump, did not address the matter directly, saying that Trump had support from “everyday Americans” and was “leading by wide margins in poll after poll.”

Trump received some good news recently when Ike Perlmutter, a billionaire businessperson who has supported Trump and DeSantis, signaled that he would support the Trump campaign in 2024, according to one person familiar with the discussions. Perlmutter did not respond to a request for comment.

Some major Republican donors have begun giving to DeSantis, even without a formal campaign to support. In mid-February, Joe Ricketts, the billionaire founder of TD Ameritrade and a past top Trump donor, donated $1 million to DeSantis’ state political action committee.

Roy Bailey, a longtime Republican fundraiser for Trump, attended a recent donor retreat DeSantis held — and came away impressed. “He is seasoned, sophisticated and a true leader,” he said.

But Bailey said he remained unaligned in 2024. “Like everyone else, I’m tiptoeing into the political season,” he said.

On Thursday evening, DeSantis addressed a donor retreat hosted by the Club for Growth, a major spender in GOP politics, just miles from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club in Florida.

The Club snubbed Trump by not inviting him, part of an ongoing public feud with the group’s president, David McIntosh. The group’s board of directors on Thursday took a closed-door vote on whether it stood by McIntosh. He received unanimous support.

In his speech, DeSantis boasted about his political successes in Florida and his use of power to crush his ideological adversaries, according to an audio recording obtained by The New York Times. He swiped at other Republicans who “just sit back like potted plants and they let the media define the terms of the debate.”

“They say that the best defense is a good offense sometimes,” DeSantis said.

Donald Trump Jr.’s fiancée, Kimberly Guilfoyle, who oversaw parts of the fundraising operation for the 2020 Trump campaign, downplayed donor defections to DeSantis. “There’s one or two there,” she said in an interview, “but nobody I personally handled or dealt with.”

Nikki Haley, a former United Nations ambassador and Trump’s top declared rival, spoke at CPAC Friday, receiving a friendly if tepid reception in the hall. Another potential 2024 candidate, Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state, also spoke. Neither directly addressed Trump.

The sheer volume of Trump paraphernalia at CPAC was a stark reminder of Trump’s unmatched hold on grassroots activists. The conference’s exhibition hall was something of a Trump bazaar: A pro-Trump super political action committee set up a replica of the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, there was a glittering array of election-denial accessories for sale, and activists manned a booth urging attendees to support people prosecuted in the Jan. 6 riot.

“DeSantis is a great governor, probably the best governor in the nation,” said Sarah Palin, a former Republican vice presidential candidate. But, she added, “Nobody can compare to Trump.”

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