With the Iowa caucuses approaching, this fall is perhaps the last opportunity for a Republican insurgent to wrest the presidential nomination from former President Donald Trump.
Alternatively, the next few months could be the time when Trump proves that none of his rivals can possibly convince his loyal supporters to vote for anyone else.
By early 2024, the quick succession of caucuses and primaries in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina will make it much harder to alter the trajectory of the race because by then, many donors and voters will have chosen their preferred candidate.
With that in mind, here are three things to watch for in the coming months, as the more than a dozen Republican candidates campaign feverishly and prepare for the second debate, which will take place on Sept. 27 in Southern California (the first debate took place last month in Milwaukee; a third debate is planned, but the time and place have not been announced).
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1. Is Trump inevitable?
When he announced that he was seeking the presidency for the third time, Trump seemed to many observers like a has-been. Candidates he had endorsed performed poorly in the 2022 midterms and his focus on pushing lies about the 2020 election was turning off all but the most committed followers.
“Old Man Trump Is Looking Weaker and Weaker—Sad!” went a Daily Beast headline from December.
But then, something changed. A series of federal and state indictments have allowed Trump to portray himself as the victim of powerful forces hellbent on stopping his political movement. It was the same grievance-laden argument that worked in 2016 but was more difficult to make in 2020, when he was running as an incumbent holding the most powerful elected office on the planet.
It seems to be working again, however. Trump, who has held onto a massive polling lead over his Republican rivals for months, increasingly looks like the prohibitive favorite to win the primary.
“The moon and the stars will need to be aligned for Trump to be defeated,” Republican pollster Frank Luntz told the Associated Press in July. So far, no such luck. New polling from the Wall Street Journal has about 60% of Republicans preferring Trump, an astonishing turnaround from only months ago.
But how deep is that loyalty? And how broad? Will it hold as Trump becomes more deeply embroiled in legal challenges? Will it hold among Iowa evangelicals and New Hampshire independents?
And while Trump is currently polling competitively in a general election, many Republicans feel certain he’ll lose to President Biden once again should he become the nominee. A mailer sent by an anti-Trump conservative group put the matter bluntly: “IF TRUMP IS THE GOP NOMINEE ... WE COULD LOSE EVERYTHING.”
Whether that message resonates with voters next year, however, is yet to be seen.
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2. Can DeSantis rescue his faltering campaign?
“DeFuture,” the New York Post declared on its front page after Gov. Ron DeSantis won a commanding reelection contest in last year’s midterms, which were otherwise bleak for the Republican Party. Many establishment Republicans saw the young governor as Trump’s successor, able to unite the GOP’s warring factions and lead the party to victory over President Biden in 2024.
Then he started campaigning. There was the disastrous Twitter launch, the awkward interactions with voters, the bristling at questions from reporters, the threat to start “slitting throats” once he goes to Washington.
For months, DeSantis has seen his poll numbers plummet — and donors abandon his campaign.
His diminished status was apparent in last month’s first GOP presidential debate, where he receded into the background and seemed, to his critics at least, incapable of straightforwardly answering questions.
For all that, DeSantis remains second to Trump in most national polls. And his campaign coffers are brimming. His strategy, it seems, is simply to outlast every other candidate, including Trump, to persevere in the face of defeats and humiliations. And it could just work.
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3. Can anyone else break through?
With hopes of a DeSantis revival fading and Trump showing no signs of losing support, many mainstream Republican leaders are desperate to find a new candidate to take on Biden.
Former Vice President Mike Pence is running as a traditional, pre-Trump conservative. At the same time, former South Carolina governor and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley impressed many with her seriousness and substance at the Milwaukee debate. In the key state of New Hampshire, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is gaining in the polls. And entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy has won over some voters by running as a charismatic, Trump-like maverick.
But there is no agreement about which of those candidates should be anointed the anti-Trump candidate. If the field remains divided, he will likely benefit, just as he did in 2016.
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