Trump’s Competitors Seek to Set Themselves Apart Without Scorning MAGA
Trump’s Competitors Seek to Set Themselves Apart Without Scorning MAGA

By Nathan Worcester

News Analysis

As more Republicans challenge Donald Trump in the race for the party’s 2024 presidential nomination, the former president’s dramatic impact on the GOP is becoming clearer.

Everyone from Nikki Haley to Vivek Ramaswamy has sought to link themselves to “America First,” as they court Trump’s Make America Great Again (MAGA) movement.

Those Republican hopefuls face a daunting task. They have to distinguish themselves from Trump and woo many of his fans, all while mounting campaigns that can compete in the general election.

How are Trump’s competitors trying to set themselves apart from the former president—and how can they do so without alienating his fiercely loyal base?

While it’s early, some patterns are already being established.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to Iowa voters in Des Moines, Iowa, on March 10, 2023. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

DeSantis’s Delicate Dance

While Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis hasn’t yet committed to a primary bid, he’s widely seen as Trump’s most formidable 2024 competitor.

The Florida governor has so far avoided responding to digs directed at him by Trump, although his online supporters, some anonymous, have gone to bat for him.

Paul Ingrassia, a Trump administration veteran and Cornell Law school graduate and lawyer, told The Epoch Times that DeSantis has relied on “digital acolytes” to fight for him because he hasn’t yet entered the race.

“He wants to have these other guys do his dirty work for him while remaining above the fray,” Ingrassia, himself a prominent online Trump supporter, stated in a March 13 interview.

“People in the Trump orbit several months ago decided their best strategy would be to charge hard at former Trump supporters who’ve publicly aligned with DeSantis, in an effort to intimidate us into silence,” David Reaboi, a political consultant and well-known DeSantis advocate, said in a March 14 interview with The Epoch Times.

“This is crucial to their effort because they’re terrified of more people peeling off and abandoning Trump for a far more sane option—one who’s far more likely to succeed on every issue of policy.”

Both men seemed to agree that DeSantis is being pitched as a more competent version of Trump. In addition, DeSantis’s sometimes critical stance on the COVID-19 response could distinguish him from the former president.

Florida’s surgeon general has drawn attention to adverse events linked to the COVID-19 vaccines that were rolled out as a result of Trump’s “Operation Warp Speed.” That elicited a critical reaction from U.S. health authorities.

Ingrassia points out that a large majority of the population has taken at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose. He believes DeSantis’s messaging on the issue may not play well with the public at large, even if it resonates with Republican primary voters.

DeSantis, he added, “was just as much of a rule follower during the early months of COVID as anyone.”

“As more time goes on, the vaccine will be an increasing political liability—as will Trump’s outsourcing of COVID to the expert class,” Reaboi said.

“Picking a fight on COVID policy with Ron DeSantis, of all people, is inadvisable.”

Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, speaks during the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at the Gaylord National Resort Hotel and Convention Center in National Harbor, Md. on March 3, 2023. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Ramaswamy’s ‘America First 2.0’

Ramaswamy, a venture capitalist, has explicitly pitched his campaign as the next development in Trump-inspired politics.

He calls his platform “America First 2.0.” His priorities include ending affirmative action, splitting from China, and rejecting the push for central bank digital currencies.

“I respect a lot of what President Trump did,”  Ramaswamy told The Epoch Times in a Feb. 23 interview. “He acknowledged problems in this country on both sides of the aisle that no one else had acknowledged before him. The question is where we go from here.”

Reaboi said he doesn’t have any stance on Ramaswamy.

“I understand that people do this for name recognition or to fleece some money off of gullible donors, but just about any other use of their money, focus, and time would be better spent in policy activism or building institutions to nurture and support a new cadre of policy professionals,” he said.

Ingrassia believes Ramaswamy would fall short against Trump even if his message reaches “the more educated faction of the GOP.”

“I think he’s in over his head,” Ingrassia said.

Pompeo Criticizes ‘Larger-Than-Life Personalities’

Another figure, Mike Pompeo, also is setting himself apart from Trump.

The former secretary of state and CIA director, who has said he’s considering a run, can make a strong case for himself as a longtime critic of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Democrats and Republicans are starting to unite against the CCP, vindicating concerns of earlier China watchers.

Yet, in a March 3 speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Pompeo said America’s “greatest threats are here,” not abroad.

He made what seemed like anti-Trump comments, saying conservatives “should not look for larger-than-life personalities.”

“Over the last few years, I’ve heard some who have claimed to be conservative excuse hypocrisy by saying something like, ‘Well, we’re electing a president, not a Sunday school teacher.’ That’s true. But having taught Sunday school, maybe we could get both,” he told the CPAC audience.

In a March 10 interview in the Washington Examiner, Pompeo said he and his wife are still praying on whether he should run.

“There is still plenty of time,” he said.

Nikki Haley, former governor of South Carolina and U.S. ambassador to the U.N., in a file photo. (Salena Zito)

Haley Stresses Demographics

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has made her relative youth and other demographic particulars cornerstones of her campaign.

“We won’t win the fight for the 21st century if we keep trusting politicians from the 20th century,” Haley, 51, said during her February launch speech in South Carolina.

“The liberal media’s heads are exploding about my run for president,” she said in her March 4 speech at CPAC. “I’m a woman, I’m a minority, and I’m the daughter of immigrants!”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during a press conference in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, on Jan. 11, 2023. (Yuriy Dyachyshyn/AFP via Getty Images)

War in Ukraine Divides Field

Foreign policy has also differentiated Trump from many of his past rivals. After decades of GOP hawkishness since World War II, his message of relative restraint and attention to the national interest found a friendly audience on the right.

Many of Trump’s 2024 competitors sound like Trump on war and peace. Others, however, have stuck with more traditional Republican stances.

A March 13 segment on Fox News’ “Tucker Carlson Tonight” vividly illustrated that.

Carlson sent 2024 Republican hopefuls several questions about Ukraine.

Trump said the United States shouldn’t back regime change in Russia, telling Carlson that “we should support regime change in the United States.”

DeSantis told Carlson that “becoming further entangled” in the conflict isn’t in America’s interest. He also called it a “territorial dispute,” which drew the ire of many Never Trump conservatives, or ex-conservatives, who see that language as too friendly to Russia, given that it invaded Ukraine.

“Astonishing. Dangerous,” The New York Times’ David French wrote on Twitter.

“DeSantis betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of a crucial issue,” National Review’s Jay Nordlinger also wrote on Twitter.

Journalist Michael Tracey, meanwhile, argued that DeSantis’s language “has no necessary connection to any concrete policy position,” saying that the Florida governor’s positions resembled President Joe Biden’s.

Ramaswamy likewise opposes greater U.S. backing in the war. He said European countries should pick up more of the tab, as Russia is more their problem than ours.

“It’s in their backyard, it’s their borders,” he wrote. “We can’t be the nanny of Europe forever.”

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott also rejected the status quo on Ukraine.

Former Vice President Mike Pence speaks during an event to promote his new book at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington on Oct. 19, 2022. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Some 2024 Hopefuls More Hawkish

Pence, who was Trump’s vice president, sang a different tune.

“There is no room for Putin apologists in the Republican Party,” he told Carlson.

Responses from Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie were also on the hawkish side.

According to Carlson, former Trump national security adviser John Bolton said he was busy, while Pompeo and others didn’t respond. Bolton’s possible candidacy is based in large part on his concerns with Trump.

“If I did decide to run, it would not be as a one-issue candidate. It would be to win,” he told The Washington Post in a February interview.

In a March 14 statement responding to Carlson’s questions, Haley said that opposing Russia is in the United States’ interest.

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