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How GOP candidates are playing to the evolving conservative base

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The Republican presidential field is starting to get crowded.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

DONALD TRUMP: I am tonight announcing my candidacy...

VIVEK RAMASWAMY: This is a cultural movement to create a new American dream.

LARRY ELDER: I've been doing TV and radio for 40 years, mostly criticizing politicians.

NIKKI HALEY: When you kick back, it hurts them more if you're wearing heels.

ASA HUTCHINSON: I am a candidate for president of the United States.

TIM SCOTT: The next American century starts today.

RON DESANTIS: I'm running for president to lead our great American comeback.

SUMMERS: Seven candidates, including a former president, a sitting senator, current and former governors, an entrepreneur and a talk radio host. They all have the same goal - winning over the conservative base. But how have the priorities of that base shifted since Trump's presidency? And how is this new crop of candidates playing to those voters? To talk more about all of that, we called up Molly Ball. She's a national political correspondent for Time magazine. Hey, Molly. Welcome.

MOLLY BALL: Thanks, Juana - great to be here.

SUMMERS: Walk us through, if you can, some of the nuance between these candidates. How are they differentiating themselves?

BALL: Well, I think, first of all, there's Trump, and there's everyone else. So all of the candidates have to orient themselves around Trump to some degree, whether it's on policy, whether it's on personality. So far, most of the contrasts that we're hearing are much more about sort of personality and tone. You have, you know, candidates like Tim Scott trying to sell a more optimistic vision that's less focused on conflict and drama. A lot of the candidates are sort of implicitly contrasting themselves with the constant scandals that seem to surround Trump. I think with Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, that's clearly a big part of the pitch, the idea being that he might share a lot of policy positions with Trump, but he would be more effective because he wouldn't constantly be mired in scandal. And he would be more focused on policy.

SUMMERS: I mean, you've been covering national politics for a long time. How different are some of the priorities that this crop of Republican candidates is running on compared to, say, what we might have seen in a Republican primary field a decade or so ago?

BALL: It's very different. And I think you really see the changing face of the Republican Party in this year's crop of candidates. More than anything, you have a party that has refocused itself almost entirely on the so-called culture wars. And so where the traditional sort of Reaganite Republican Party was focused on the sort of famous three-legged stool of a sort of international approach to national defense, a sort of hawkish foreign policy position, a focus on small government when it came to taxes and spending and then a sense of the traditional family when it came to cultural issues, this Republican Party is much more populist, is much more fiscally liberal in some ways. I think it's a real difference from the past.

SUMMERS: As we've been talking about, Donald Trump's influence looms incredibly large as a candidate. He's a former president. He's running again. He leads in early polls. But I'm curious. When you think about conservative philosophy, conservative policy, how much power does he still have to set the agenda for his party?

BALL: It's such an interesting question because I think we've seen Trump be both a leader and a follower. On the one hand, when you think about an issue like free trade that was such a core tenet of Republican philosophy for so long, that was something that Trump just completely blew up starting in 2016. He identified that there was this sort of working-class base of the Republican Party that was interested in things like tariffs, even if the thought of something like that would make a sort of a Paul Ryan blanch. And so the party has followed him in that direction. But he also, I think, has been a follower when it comes to some of this culture war stuff, issues about, again, education, LGBTQ issues, particularly issues about transgender kids. We've seen Trump, I think, follow the lead of the base and of other politicians in embracing those issues. And that's clearly where the sort of pulse of the party is right now.

SUMMERS: Any candidates waiting in the wings who may enter the race and offer a significantly different conservative agenda compared to the candidates who have already declared?

BALL: We still have yet to see former Vice President Mike Pence get in the race. He is offering something that's a much more traditional Republicanism offering - to make the Republican Party great again, if you will, take it back to a sort of Reaganite vision. And then you have some more overtly anti-Trump candidates who are considering running, someone like a Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey, Chris Sununu, the current governor of New Hampshire. Both of them have been quite blistering in their critiques of Trump and are somewhat unpopular with the Republican base as a result. But both of them and possibly some others are considering getting in the race just in order to have a candidate who would make that full-throated case against the frontrunner on the debate stage. So they really could bring a very different argument to the Republican primary.

SUMMERS: That was Molly Ball. She's a national political correspondent for Time magazine. Molly, thank you.

BALL: Thank you, Juana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Tyler Bartlam
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.