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2024 GOP field gains candidates who are direct rebukes to Trump

Sep 29, 2023

This week's expansion of the Republican presidential primary field will yield two of the most direct internal challenges to date to Donald Trump's leadership in the White House.

It also could further solidify Trump's chances of winning yet another contested GOP presidential contest.

First up will be former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who was once a close Trump ally but has since soured on the former president and plans a no-holds-barred campaign against him. On Tuesday, he’ll launch his second bid for the presidency at a New Hampshire town hall.

One day later, former Vice President Mike Pence, who ran on two presidential tickets with Trump, will announce his bid, as well. (The same day, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum is also set to launch his candidacy.)

The latest round of growth shows, on one hand, consternation with Trump as the front-runner and, on the other, doubts that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — consistently the No. 2 challenger behind Trump — can be the person to defeat him.

But as many Republicans see it: The more people who get in the race, the better it is for Trump.

Former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican and NBC News contributor who is also an adviser for No Labels, a group weighing backing a third-party ticket, said the more the merrier for Trump.

"I think there is a lane [for the others], but it now may be so divided that [it's] single digits or slight double digits to find out who gets that," he said. "And I think they’re all going to try to find that."

Yet while Pence, Christie and Burgum plot their lanes in the race, another potential candidate took his name out of the running this week, explicitly saying he didn't want to make it more difficult for Trump to be beaten. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed Monday: "The stakes are too high for a crowded field to hand the nomination to a candidate who earns just 35 percent of the vote, and I will help ensure this does not happen."

"We must not be complacent, and candidates should not get into this race to further a vanity campaign, to sell books or to audition to serve as Donald Trump's vice president," he added.

On the surface, Pence's bid looks as if it could be the most significant. Not since Vice President John Nance Garner, a Democrat, challenged President Franklin Roosevelt in 1940 has a vice president run against the president he served under. By running, Pence is implicitly suggesting to GOP primary voters that Trump doesn't deserve four more years in office.

Most pointedly, Pence is a rebuke to Trump's driving belief that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him. On Jan. 6, 2021, he refused to go along with Trump's effort to stop the counting of the electoral votes to certify the results, and the pro-Trump mob that sacked the U.S. Capitol could be heard chanting "Hang Mike Pence."

Pence has occasionally distanced himself from Trump on other policy matters, but he has still been relatively muted in his explicit criticisms of him.

Don't expect Christie to hold back, however.

At an April town hall in New Hampshire, Christie, who in 2016 announced his support for Trump after having dropped out of the presidential race, devoted his entire opening remarks to slamming him.

"Tonight is the beginning of the case against Donald Trump," Christie said. "You’re not going to beat someone by closing your eyes, clicking your heels together three times and saying, ‘There's no place like home.’ That's not going to work."

Former Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va., said it's Christie's bid that is more impactful, "because he's coming to play and speak the truth on Trump and the threat he is to democracy, the country and the party."

"Pence can be used as evidence for Christie of Trump's crimes — the things Pence won't say," said Comstock, an anti-Trump Republican, adding the candidates shouldn't agree to the Republican National Committee's loyalty pledge to support the eventual nominee, which the party announced Friday as one of its requirements to get onto the first primary debate stage this summer.

As for how they’d campaign, Pence, a longtime advocate for social conservatives’ priorities, is expected to court the religious right and seek to jump-start his bid in Iowa, where evangelical voters make up a large part of the primary electorate. Christie, meanwhile, is poised to target voters who may be wary of Trump's temperament while seeking to use New Hampshire as the vehicle to launch his candidacy.

Both look as if they will need a miracle, however. The RealClearPolitics average of several presidential primary surveys shows Trump at more than 53%, trailed most closely by DeSantis, at about 22%. Pence is at just 3.8%, while Christie is further behind at 1%.

At his town hall with Fox News host Sean Hannity last week, Trump welcomed more challengers into the race, saying, "That's a good thing, isn't it?"

But, he added, "I don't think it matters."

A Trump campaign spokesperson suggested the soon-to-be-announced aspirants were bad news not for Trump but for DeSantis.

"This week's additions to the presidential race are joining only because Ron DeSanctimonious has proven to be an inept campaigner and his opponents smell blood in the water," the spokesperson said. "The race for second place is about to heat up!"

Responding to the pending announcements, Jess Szymanski, a spokesperson for the pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down, said the primary contest "is a two-man race between Governor DeSantis and Trump — with momentum building behind the Governor and the former President running scared." She touted the number of door-knocks the super PAC conducted to boost his bid.

Like Trump's and DeSantis’ allies, aides to other campaigns weren't fretting about Pence's and Christie's entrances.

"No impact," an aide to a rival campaign said when asked how their bids would affect the primary campaign.

More significant may be the charges Trump could face in Washington, D.C., where a grand jury that has been hearing evidence in the investigation of his handling of classified documents is set to meet this week.

Barry Bennett, a former Trump campaign adviser, said the expanding GOP field is a sign: "More and more people are becoming convinced that President Trump cannot weather the storm coming at him."

"If that becomes reality," he added, "our party will have what Reagan termed ‘a time for choosing.’"

Allan Smith is a political reporter for NBC News.