NEBRASKA CITY, Neb. — Mike Pence leaned into his faith. Ron DeSantis highlighted his credentials as a fighter. Ted Cruz sarcastically mocked the opposition.
At a steak fry here just across the Missouri River from Iowa, the first-in-the-nation presidential state, some of the party’s leading prospects for the 2024 GOP nomination began carving out their lanes and test-driving messages on Sunday. Nearly absent from their remarks? Donald Trump, who received only a few passing mentions.
Cruz, the Texas senator, told POLITICO after the speech that he was focused on the midterm elections in 2022. Former Vice President Pence, when asked about his presidential ambitions in 2024, told a reporter, “I’ll keep you posted.” DeSantis, the Florida governor who left the steak fry soon after he spoke, blasted speculation last week that he was focused on anything but the midterms.
With Trump increasingly signaling he’s positioning himself for another presidential campaign, it’s a reflection of the political limbo that top Republicans find themselves trapped in. Always aware they are operating under Trump’s watchful eye, they are moving forward gingerly for fear of alienating the easily provoked former president.
“The Trump overhang on the race isn’t going to affect what these potential candidates are going to do at this point. Now at some point it will. All the things you need to do right now — road-test a message, raise money, if you have an early state strategy, get out to Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — these candidates can do because we have a big midterm election coming up with a lot at stake,” said veteran Republican presidential campaign strategist David Kochel, who’s based in Iowa. “All of that can go on without Trump.”
It’s a delicate balancing act, one that requires campaigning in a post-Trump landscape where — even after defeat — Trump continues to eclipse everything and everyone else in the party.
On Thursday, one GOP presidential prospect, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, staked out a potentially perilous position in a major speech where he all but called out Trump for miring Republicans in “the quicksand of endless grievances.
“We need to turn our attention to the future and quit wallowing in the past,” he told an audience at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California. Republicans “need to face the realities of the 2020 election and learn — not hide — from them. We need to discredit the extremists in our midst the way we have done before — we’ll discuss that more in a moment. We need to renounce the conspiracy theorists and truth deniers, the ones who know better and the ones who are just plain nuts.”
Yet Christie never mentioned Trump at all, though the former president continues to wallow in false claims about election fraud, and remains the party’s leading truth-denier about the outcome of the 2020 election.
Nearly all of the top-tier GOP presidential prospects have already said they won’t challenge Trump in a Republican primary. One reason: Trump still has an iron grip on the party, according to polls of Republican attitudes. A poll from Republican-leaning firm Echelon Insights last month showed that 68 percent of 2024 primary voters would pick Trump and just 25 percent would favor another candidate. Half of respondents said they were Trump-first voters, while 43 percent said they were Republican Party-first voters.
With so much of the party still revolving around Trump, Republicans who hope to compete in a primary recognize the need to pay homage to the state of the economy before Covid. But on Sunday they shied away from embracing Trump’s claims of widespread election fraud and there was scant discussion of Trump’s management of the pandemic. Instead, the focus was on the threat of “cancel culture” from the left and on President Joe Biden, who was characterized as feeble-minded.
“In 2023, we’re going to tell Joe Biden that it’s 2024 and he can go home to Delaware,” Cruz told 1,200 Republicans attending the 5th Annual Nebraska Steak Fry.
For Cruz, Pence and DeSantis, the dismissal of presidential talk is hard to reconcile with their appearance at the steak fry — an event that took place within the Omaha media market, which broadcasts into 10 counties in western Iowa.
“Nebraska is as close as you can get to Iowa. We can see Nebraska from our house,” said Kochel.
Of the three prominent Republicans who traveled to Nebraska for the event, Pence is perhaps the most precariously positioned when it comes to Trump.
The former vice president fell out of favor with the party’s hardcore Trump supporters when he refused to try to block the Jan. 6 congressional certification of the 2020 presidential election results.
Anti-Pence sentiment is so strong in some Republican quarters that the organizers for Sunday’s event, hosted by Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, feared Pence would be booed. But the crowd was Midwestern nice to Pence, who repeatedly talked about faith, abortion and prayer.
The former vice president name-checked the “Trump-Pence record,” heralded their pre-pandemic economic record and boasted about Operation Warp Speed, which led to the rapid development of three Covid vaccines.
Once known for his fealty to Trump, Pence was restrained in discussing his former boss, but he held up Trump as an ideal compared to Biden over Afghanistan, where the abrupt withdrawal under the Democratic president led to chaos and the deaths of 13 U.S. soldiers. Pence said he was in the room when Trump negotiated a February 2020 deal with the Taliban by threatening its leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.
Cruz and DeSantis similarly focused on Afghanistan and said the chaotic withdrawal of American troops made the U.S. look weak in the eyes of its adversaries.
If Trump doesn’t run in 2024, DeSantis consistently ranks as a top pick among Republican voters because his combative nature and blunt style capture the sense of fight that many conservatives crave.
“DeSantis has built a big lead with Trump Republicans,” said Patrick Ruffini, a pollster with Echelon Insights. “What you see is DeSantis is dominant in the Trump-first lane, and he’s been making inroads into the party-first lane. He’s a Trump-flavored candidate, but he’s not limited to that lane.”
A big part of the DeSantis appeal is his knack for aggressively criticizing “wokeness” and drawing Biden into pitched political battles with him over managing Covid. Where Biden has called for masking and mandatory vaccinations of many employees to protect people’s health, DeSantis has cast himself as anti-mandate and anti-lockdown, saying it costs people their jobs and freedom.
“When Biden is violating the Constitution,” DeSantis said Sunday, “we are going to be on the front lines with a full-spectrum response. That is the least that we can be doing.”