WASHINGTON — Early Republican presidential hopefuls are sidestepping questions about how they differ from Donald Trump, demonstrating a reluctance to draw a contrast with the former president and early 2024 primary front-runner.
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, the first Republican to launch her campaign after Trump this cycle, has repeatedly punted when asked how she differs from the ex-president on policy.
“What I am saying is I don’t kick sideways. I’m kicking forward,” she said on Fox News’ “Hannity” after her first campaign speech. “Joe Biden is the president. He’s the one I’m running against.”
Haley, who also was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the Trump administration, has repeated the line about kicking “forward” and not “sideways” in other interviews.
Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who recently visited Iowa to field-test campaign themes but hasn’t officially launched a bid, didn’t give a specific answer on "Hannity" last week when he was asked twice what policy differences he has with Trump.
“Probably not very many at all. I am so thankful that we had President Trump in office,” Scott said.
Asked again on “Fox News Sunday” about how he differs from Trump on policy, Scott pivoted to highlight issues they agree on, beginning with the Republican Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, and he touted the Trump-era record of low unemployment before Covid-19.
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Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence, who has made his own moves toward running for president, is showing a similar reluctance. Asked in a recent interview with NBC News to name one policy difference he has with Trump, Pence pivoted to his style.
“Well, I think the times call for different leadership. And I’m confident we’ll have better choices,” said Pence, who said he intends to announce his 2024 decision by spring.
The reluctance evokes a dynamic from the primary campaign in 2016, when a crowded field of candidates refrained from making the case against Trump until he had consolidated enough support to win.
“Picking a public fight with President Trump is not particularly constructive,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who hasn’t endorsed in the 2024 primaries. “So I can understand why they want to talk about what they’re for and what they’re going to do and not get into a mudslinging match with the former president.”
Cornyn noted that those who engaged in public brawls with Trump in his first campaign didn’t benefit. “We saw some of that in 2016,” he said. “It didn’t really cover anybody with glory to get into that kind of contest.”
While Haley has avoided a direct attack against Trump, she has gone further than other opponents with a broad pitch for generational change: “You don’t have to be 80 years old to be president. We don’t need to have the same people going back again. We need something new.”
Trump will be 78 on Election Day in 2024. Biden will be 81.
'Trying to walk a narrow path'
A new Fox News poll found Trump leading a hypothetical 2024 GOP field with 43% of the vote among primary voters, ahead of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, with 28%. Haley and Pence were tied for a distant third, at 7%, with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and former Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., tied for fourth, at 2%. Nobody else topped 1%.
“There’s little daylight between Trump and the field of challengers for the GOP nomination on policy, so it’s leadership style where they are trying to make a U-turn. The question candidates have to grapple with is whether voters want to make that turn, too,” said Republican donor Dan Eberhart, an oil and gas executive.
Eberhart said that Trump’s “policies were popular with Republicans, for the most part,” and that as a result the early contenders are “trying to walk a narrow path that signals to swing voters that it’s safe to vote for Republicans again without turning off base GOP voters.”
Some GOP elites say they've heard concerns from Trump skeptics that a crowded field would pave the way for his renomination.
“We’ll see how many people get in the race. The concern I’ve had people express to me is they’re worried, if there’s a cast of thousands, that people divide up the vote and he’ll be the nominee again,” Cornyn said. “But I think people also recognize that we need to win and win the election, and that’s the most important thing. And so that’s what I’m focused on.”
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The Democratic National Committee has jumped on the resistance to breaking with Trump, saying it shows that the 2024 field so far is “embracing his MAGA agenda” and trying to “gain favor with the MAGA base.”
Trump has said little about most prospective rivals, except DeSantis, whom he has been publicly disparaging and mocking. DeSantis, who hasn’t announced his plans for 2024, has yet to hit back, having deflected questions about the attacks.
Eberhart said: “Everyone is trying to play nice right now, but politics isn’t beanbags, and eventually the gloves are going to come off. The question is whether anyone can best Trump at bare-knuckle brawling when they do.”