ATLANTA (AP) — For much of the Republican presidential field, Donald Trump is the candidate who must not be named — or at least not criticized too harshly.
Multiple GOP White House contenders took the stage Friday in Atlanta, the city where the former president was most recently indicted and where he must surrender next week on racketeering charges related to the 2020 election. They dealt gingerly with the man they’re trying to catch in the 2024 GOP primary campaign.
Radio host Erick Erickson's annual convocation of conservative leaders and activists mostly sidestepped the dominant figure in Republican politics. The Gathering, Erickson said, “is our time to come together and hear from people when they’re running for office, why should we vote for you … what’s your vision.”
Trump dominates the primary polls and media attention despite criminal indictments for alleged actions before, during and after his presidency. Those four indictments seem to have hardened Trump’s support among core GOP voters, even as a majority of people in the United States disapprove of him. Many party loyalists who say they are open to alternatives aren’t necessarily enthusiastic about criticizing the former president.
The event offered a potential preview of how Trump may factor into the conversation when many of the same Republican contenders gather Wednesday for the first presidential debate of the 2024 campaign. Trump has signaled he might not attend, but the forum in Atlanta was a reminder that the former president is hard to avoid — even when he’s physically not present.
Former Vice President Mike Pence told a friendly audience that he has “real differences” with Trump “about the future of the country.” He nodded to the Capitol insurrection that is the focus of one of the pending indictments against Trump. He called it “that fateful day” and repeated that he fulfilled “my constitutional duty” — his way of affirming why he did not grant Trump’s wish of blocking Democrat Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory.
But before any of those carefully qualified statements, Pence said, “I always stood loyally by President Donald Trump.”
Nikki Haley, a former South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador during the Trump administration, offered a critique by pairing it with a compliment.
“Trump did a good job of getting attention on China’s trade practices, but he didn’t do nearly enough on the fact that they have bought 400,000 acres of U.S. soil,” she said as part of a statement addressing the growing rivalry between Washington and Beijing.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis repeated his attacks on so-called “wokeness” and reminded attendees of his ongoing fight with entertainment giant Disney. The closest he came to confronting Trump was a call for the party to look ahead, and he did that with a swipe at familiar foils beyond the Republican fold.
“There’s nobody that wants us to be looking backwards more than the Democrats and the media,” he said, adding a seeming allusion to Trump’s lies that his loss to Biden was rigged. “They would love to have us have to relitigate all this stuff from 2020,” DeSantis said.
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott took a similar route, emphasizing his “optimism” about the “future” of the party and the country. Scott saved his presidential barbs for Biden.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, nearly alone among Republican hopefuls in criticizing Trump for his behavior and related legal peril, could shift the dynamics Saturday when he appears with Erickson. Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, making his first bid for public office, will appear as well.
Explained Whit Ayres, a national Republican pollster, “You can’t win the nomination by attacking (Trump) frontally.”
Ayres said the dynamics reflect the realities of the GOP primary electorate. About 10-15% are “Never Trumpers,” Ayres said, while about 30-35% hardcore Trump supporters. The rest, half or a slim majority, “have doubts about his electability” in a general election but are still “reliable Republicans who voted for him twice,” Ayres said.
As a Republican, “you can’t call him unfit for office,” Ayres said. “That’s basically requiring half the party to admit they screwed up and put someone unfit for office into the Oval Office. That’s just a psychological step too far for most people.”
Brad Raymer, an attendee from Marietta, Georgia, was among the attendees who has cast two November ballots for Trump. But he called the Friday conversation refreshing.
“I don’t want to hear any more about Trump,” Raymer said. “It’s good to hear these candidates’ actual ideas."
Indeed, Erickson picked their brains on matters from the Ukraine war and trade policy to regulation of artificial intelligence. Still, those policy discussions largely yielded similar ideological positions — promises of smaller government, lower taxes, increased military spending — that are routine in any Republican forum.
Raymer acknowledged that those overlaps make Trump’s “big personality” and “antics” stand out in a party he has dominated since launching his first presidential campaign eight years ago.
But Raymer said he knows plenty of Republicans who, unlike him, embrace Trump’s “antics” or at least tolerate “his election lies” about 2020. “I try to tell them to see reason,” he said, emphasizing that he accepted Biden’s victory in Georgia and nationally.
Making a more muted version of the same argument was Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, who notably defied Trump in 2020 by certifying Biden’s slate of Georgia electors. Erickson and others celebrated Kemp's 2022 reelection romp over Democratic star Stacey Abrams even after enduring Trump's public ire. They hailed Georgia’s economy, crediting the governor, of course, rather than a Democratic administration in Washington.
Kemp himself urged Republicans to look ahead.
“You can believe whatever you want about the 2020 election. That is your right,” Kemp said. But “if you’re still mad about that,” he continued, then “sign up to be a poll worker, be a poll watcher, get involved in the process, door knock, phone calls, do something that will help us win in 2024. Complaining is not going to help us.”
It was all about Trump. Without a mention of his name.
Bill Barrow, The Associated Press