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Watching DeSantis, Trump is preparing for a long primary battle


OXON HILL, Md. — In the MAGA-clad hallways of this week’s Conservative Political Action Conference, Republican Party policy appeared almost unchanged from the heyday of Donald J. Trump’s presidency. The sequin-wearing superfans jostled for selfies with any member of the Trump family who happened to be nearby. Chants of “We love Trump!” echoed through the hallways.

But outside the confines of the friendly rally, Mr. Trump and his campaign have begun to adjust to the new reality of 2024: The former president may be the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, but he’s not. plus the singular leader of her partying.

After a rocky start, Operation Trump is now actively preparing for the possibility of a drawn-out primary in 2024. That means laying the groundwork for competition in a potential fight against delegates that could stretch into the year. next. And that means shadowboxing with his ascendant but not-yet-official challenger, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, about donors and endorsements from within their shared home state and beyond.

It’s a tedious job that Mr. Trump was slow to undertake in his 2016 but scattered celebrity campaign. In 2020, he’s used his office to scare off any serious challenge.

For the third time, the Trump campaign’s emphasis on traditional nuts and bolts is an acknowledgment of the race’s expected competitiveness. Despite an unrivaled standing as a former president and an early advantage in the polls, Mr Trump’s responsibilities – including the threat of indictments – could turn the race into a protracted and bitter fight.

On Saturday, when Mr. Trump addresses CPAC, the annual showcase of right-wing activists and energy, the moment should show its strength: the enduring loyalty of a vocal segment of the party. The speech will be just his fourth public event since the start of his campaign nearly 16 weeks ago. But Mr. Trump is now accelerating his public schedule, with planning underway for his first major rally of 2024 and two political speeches this month, according to two people familiar with the planning.

Notably, Mr. DeSantis, who is expected to run but has yet to declare his intentions, skipped CPAC, instead embarking on a multi-state tour to promote his new book about his leadership in Florida as a national role model. On Sunday, DeSantis will deliver a speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California on his vision for the party.

Both men have trips planned to Davenport, Iowa, in the next two weeks – touring the state which is beginning the nomination process.

“President Trump is still the leading contender,” said Charlie Gerow, Republican strategist and vice chairman of CPAC. “But it’s a much more open race than in the past.”

Publicly and privately, Mr. Trump has already begun beating Mr. DeSantis and signaled that the intensity of such attacks is likely to increase. Mr. Trump’s campaign spent a small amount this week running its first Facebook ads aimed at Mr. DeSantis, including one with a photo of the two men and the caption: “Pictured: An apprentice learning from the master.”

Mr. DeSantis mostly ignored the taunts, although during an appearance on Fox News he took a sideways swipe at the infighting that has plagued Mr. Trump’s White House by explaining that his governorship ” hadn’t had a single leak.”

On Thursday night, Mr. DeSantis addressed a donor retreat hosted by the Club for Growth, a big spender in GOP politics, in Palm Beach, a few miles from Mr. Trump’s own Mar-a-Lago club. in Florida. For an event featuring several potential candidates for 2024, the group clearly did not invite Mr. Trump.

The shift in political dynamics is clearly visible in the nascent delegation strategy of Operation Trump.

Prior to 2020, the Trump campaign successfully played the role of the party establishment. From their perch in the White House, his aides shaped rules of States Parties to do it is more difficult for challengers to accumulate delegates. The goal – which they achieved – was to throttle all primary challenges before they could grow.

As 2024 approaches, the outlook for the Trump team is very different. Bearing in mind memories of the 2016 efforts to prevent Mr. Trump’s victory, they appealed to state parties to seek opportunities to shape the convention and delegate rules to benefit Mr. Trump.

Although those involved in the effort said no lobbying for rule changes had yet taken place, the Trump team began calling state party officials and sent staff members to attend. some party rallies.

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

There is no modern precedent for a former president’s participation in a contested primary, making it difficult to project Mr. Trump’s political strength in the future.

But there are signs of his diminishing influence in the party. The former president’s fundraising has dwindled dramatically: In 2021, when Mr. Trump addressed CPAC in his first major speech after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, he raised $3.2 million online within 48 hours of the speech.

He raised about half that amount online — $1.6 million — the day and day after his 2024 announcement late last year, according to federal records.

Moreover, there has so far been a lack of public support from some of his most senior aides. In a call weeks ago, Mr. Trump asked Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders of Arkansas, his former White House press secretary, to endorse him, and she replied that she would not. would not yet, according to two people briefed on the discussion, who asked not to be named while discussing the private call. Mr Trump was disappointed but not angry in response to the call, the people said.

An aide to the governor did not respond to a request for comment, and Steven Cheung, a spokesperson for Mr. Trump, did not address the issue directly, saying Mr. Trump had the support of “ordinary Americans.” and “led from afar”. margins poll after poll.

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

Some big Republican donors have started giving to Mr. DeSantis, even without an official campaign to support. In mid-February, Joe Ricketts, the billionaire founder of TD Ameritrade and former high-profile Trump donor, donated $1 million to Mr. DeSantis’ state PAC.

Roy Bailey, a longtime Republican fundraiser for Mr Trump, attended a recent donor retreat Mr DeSantis hosted in Palm Beach – and came away impressed. “He’s seasoned, sophisticated and a true leader,” he said.

But Mr Bailey said he remained non-aligned in 2024. “Like everyone else, I tiptoe into the political season,” he said.

The Growth Club was not so cautious. His backing down from Mr Trump at the weekend donor retreat was part of an ongoing public spat led by the group’s chairman, David McIntosh.

The brawl angered the former chairman – who sent Mr McIntosh a profanity-laden text message through an aide in August – but not the group’s board. On Thursday, council voted behind closed doors on whether to back Mr McIntosh. It received unanimous support.

In his address Thursday, DeSantis bragged about his political successes in Florida and his use of power to crush ideological opponents, according to an audio recording obtained by The New York Times. He brushed off other Republicans who “just sit around like potted plants and they let the media define the terms of the debate..”

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

Kimberly Guilfoyle, who is the fiancée of Donald Trump Jr. and who oversaw part of the fundraising operation for the Trump 2020 campaign, played down donor defections to Mr DeSantis. “There are one or two there,” she said in an interview, “but no one that I personally handled or dealt with.”

Nikki Haley, the former United Nations ambassador and Mr. Trump’s declared main rival, spoke to CPAC on Friday, receiving a friendly but lukewarm reception in the room. Another potential 2024 nominee, Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state, also spoke. Neither addressed Mr. Trump’s presence in the race directly, preferring indirect references to generational change and eligibility.

The sheer volume of Trump props at CPAC was a stark reminder of Mr. Trump’s unparalleled hold on grassroots activists and the daunting challenge facing any potential rival of a former president. The conference showroom looked like a Trump bazaar: A pro-Trump super PAC set up a replica of the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, there was also a glittering array of election denial props for sale, and Activists held a stand urging attendees to support those prosecuted in the January 6 riot.

“DeSantis is a great governor, probably the best governor in the country,” said Sarah Palin, the former Republican vice-presidential nominee. But, she added, “no one can compare to Trump.”

Jonathan Swan contributed report.

nytimes Gt

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