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Trump’s ‘fear factor’ shows signs of waning as 2024 Republican hopefuls jockey

Former appointees and allies of Trump test the waters for possible presidential bids by releasing ads and hitting early voting states.
Key Speakers At Conservative Political Action Conference
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, in Orlando, Fla., on Feb. 25.Tristan Wheelock / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

If Donald Trump runs for president again, he’ll likely be the party's nominee. But a raft of GOP candidates looks ready to take him on, a sign he’s losing some of his dominance in Republican circles.

Just this week, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem launched a commercial aimed at introducing her to a national audience. Trump’s former U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, publicly floated a possible presidential bid Thursday in early state Iowa. And Trump’s former secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, began targeting evangelical voters in Iowa and South Carolina with a new ad on the Supreme Court and religious freedom.

Meanwhile, Trump’s estranged 2020 running mate, former Vice President Mike Pence, is positioning himself for an expected run against his old boss, while Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton has become a frequent visitor to Iowa and New Hampshire, another early voting state.

For months, consultants and grassroots conservatives like Iowa’s Bob Vander Plaats believed many of the Republicans were testing the waters in a less serious way, perhaps in the hopes of auditioning as Trump’s running mate. But now they think Trump will face a real primary.

“The best way I can put it is that if there’s a Trump candidacy — and so many of us respect what he did as president — many are afraid we’re going to end up in an endless debate on the past versus a debate on moving forward in the future,” Vander Plaats said of what he's hearing “on the ground” in the first-in-the-nation caucus state.

“Instead of it being about [President Joe] Biden’s record and $5 gallon of gas, the hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan, and disrespect on the world stage, it’s going to be debating Trump,” he added. “It’s going to be Jan. 6; it’s going to be the 2020 election. Let’s not have that. Let’s move forward; let’s have it about them. And we win. That’s what’s motivating a lot of people.”

Vander Plaats and a dozen other national and early state Republican insiders who spoke to NBC News say the sense of weariness has been brought into sharper focus recently as the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection holds a series of revelatory public hearings. And though many Republicans aren’t watching it and aren't likely to believe its findings, they say, the hearings are still creating unwelcome pressure, leading some megadonors to say, albeit anonymously, that they’re backing away from Trump.

But Jan. 6 is only one factor in the jockeying to take on the undisputed leader of the GOP, sources say. There's also the ambition of politicians that's typical for any end-of-midterm election cycle; a hope Trump won’t run again; a belief by some that he could be indicted as a result of Jan. 6 or his efforts to overturn the election results in Georgia; a sense Trump isn’t so supreme after Republican voters rejected his high-profile endorsed candidates in Georgia and other primary races; and Pence’s decision to defy Trump over Jan. 6 and appear ready to run against him.

“The fear factor is gone for a lot of consultants and some politicians who otherwise were worried about crossing him,” said one top Republican consultant who, nonetheless, didn’t want to publicly cross Trump and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Trump’s political operation listens to the whispers and monitors his potential opponents, and they say the former president is ready to take on all comers.

“My belief is they’re all going to run, and a big reason they’re running is based on the fact that if Mike Pence can run, we can all run,” said Tony Fabrizio, one of Trump’s pollsters. “What’s the loyalty argument if your vice president is running against you for president?”

For all the hits Trump has taken, Fabrizio said, his polling and public surveys show his favorability rating is still high among Republican voters: It hasn’t really fallen since he left office, and he’s still receiving about half of the 2024 GOP primary vote in crowded-field surveys, with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis often trailing by double digits.

But DeSantis has been consistently inching closer to Trump in those surveys while everyone else is mired in single digits. The Florida governor has also won a few key conservative straw polls and, surprisingly, moved marginally ahead of Trump in a recent Republican poll in New Hampshire, the first-in-the-nation primary state.

Of the Republicans who might run in 2024, DeSantis and his team have denied the rumors the most. Additionally, the governor has not traveled with any great frequency to early voting states, only heading to a South Carolina fundraiser held on his behalf in May and an April event in Nevada for U.S. Senate candidate Adam Laxalt, who was DeSantis’ roommate at the Naval Justice School.

DeSantis adviser David Abrams said speculation about the governor's presidential positioning was "comically wrong" because he's focused solely on his day job and winning re-election.

DeSantis has amassed a $124 million war chest for his re-election campaign while Trump, who began this year with $122 million cash on hand across his political action committees, has watched his one-time understudy with a measure of resentment and nervousness, said one Republican who recently spoke to the former president but did not want to publicly describe private conversations with him.

“It would be a lie to say he’s not watching DeSantis and that DeSantis might be a big reason Trump announces early,” the Republican said. “Don’t get me wrong, if Ron thinks he can beat Trump, he’s wrong.”

Dave Carney, a veteran presidential campaign consultant from New Hampshire, said he’s not surprised potential candidates are flocking to the Granite State or that there’s speculation about challenging Trump. He said one factor animating Trump and other Republicans is Biden’s low approval ratings and the belief that the president’s insistence that he’ll run again is a “façade.”

“If Biden steps down, there’s a little less incentive for Trump to run,” he said. “But the Democrats will have a donnybrook on their side. It’s better for us either way.”

In South Carolina, longtime Republican strategist Wesley Donehue said he believes every possible Republican candidate now is running a “just-in-case” presidential campaign in the hopes Trump doesn’t run. He said that, with the exception perhaps of DeSantis, none would beat Trump, especially in South Carolina.

“Haley doesn’t have a shot against Donald Trump or against DeSantis here, and she was governor,” Donehue said.

Haley, who lost standing with Republicans for criticizing Trump after the Jan. 6 riot, made sure to praise Trump last week in her speech at the Iowa Republican Party’s Lincoln Day Dinner. She suggested she wouldn’t run against Trump.

Pompeo, Trump’s other appointee jockeying for a presidential bid, has been more direct in entertaining a challenge, telling CBS News’ Major Garrett last week that Trump’s decision would not have an impact on him.

“I’m sure in some ways it would be uncomfortable,” Pompeo said, noting he was once considered Trump’s most loyal Cabinet member. “I suspect it would be a little uncomfortable for him, too. We worked so closely together.”

An adviser to Noem wouldn’t say whether she would run against Trump but said that her newly launched TV ad is also targeting early state Republican voters on digital media.

“We’re just getting started,” said the adviser, who did not have authorization to speak on the record.

David Kochel, a top presidential consultant who hails from Iowa, said there’s only downside for potential candidates who don’t start “road-testing their message, meeting people in early states and building a financial network.”

At the same time, he said, “there’s a growing feeling that more people are sick of the chaos and the drama” surrounding Trump.

Scott Reed, another presidential campaign veteran and former top operative for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said that “candidates are loosening up some. … In the last six weeks, there have been more 2024 strategic discussions and organizational meetings than in some time. There’s a feeling — a feeling, mind you, by some that Trump is fading, that there’s exhaustion. People are worn down.”

But Trump’s pollster, Fabrizio, said the data shows that Trump isn’t just in a strong position, but that more candidates only increase the likelihood that his hardcore base of supporters will have outsize influence.

“When you’re at the top of the mountain, every little rockslide looks like an avalanche. But it’s not,” Fabrizio said. “The best thing that could happen to Donald Trump is all these people run. The victories will only look bigger if the field is bigger.”