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The latest Trump charges cast a new light on a growing Republican presidential field

Even before the federal indictment of former President Donald Trump related to classified documents, this past week was notable for bringing three more names into the presidential conversation, including Trump's vice president, Mike Pence.
Charlie Neibergall
/
AP
Even before the federal indictment of former President Donald Trump related to classified documents, this past week was notable for bringing three more names into the presidential conversation, including Trump's vice president, Mike Pence.

In the long history of the American presidency there has never been a week like this.

A former president has been indicted on serious federal charges that carry lengthy prison terms. He and his defenders have called it politicized prosecution. His detractors call it long overdue. Much of the nation waits in uncertainty.

The legal process now unfolding raises questions that have only been theoretical in the past. Among them: Should a former president be exempt from prosecution for actions in office or stemming from his time in office?

Should the prosecution of a former president be off the table unless the authority of the federal government is still in the hands of that president's own party?

Should it make a difference if the former president is formally pursuing a return to office? Or where he stands in the polls?

And beyond that, can we ever recapture our misty-eyed national mythology about the presidency as the embodiment of what makes us America?

Few are left who remember the wartime unity that followed Pearl Harbor in 1941, a national mood we experienced again, if only briefly, after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Will the nation ever again rally 'round the White House and its occupant as if rallying around the flag?

Or are we reaching a point where the nation's highest office is just another point of contention in a constant political war? Will the presidency once again symbolize the worsening of disunion as it did in the days just before the Civil War?

The answers to these questions will largely depend on the fate of one man, former President Donald Trump. Much will also depend on the response of his own party, and on the response of the American voter.

In time, the current national trauma may even lead greater numbers of voters to ask whether our disjointed system of choosing a president — with its pieces and parts from four different centuries — still makes sense.

That's down the road. For the moment, at least, many leaders in Trump's Republican Party are sidestepping the question of his guilt and instead attacking the Department of Justice and the current president.

Yet even as the thought of Trump in the dock in a criminal case enrages his core supporters — and the officeholders who depend on them — it may also breathe new life into the candidacies of those willing to offer alternatives.

A (slightly) different group of Republican candidates

Even before the big news happened, this past week was notable for bringing three more names into the presidential conversation, all in the Republican Party. All are current or former governors. And while none has been given a snowball's chance of winning the White House, their entry may have meaning for the overall race.

Trump's own vice president, Mike Pence, former governor of Indiana, is the comparative giant in this threesome, having near-universal name recognition and a mid- to high-single-digits standing in polls of likely Republican voters.

Pence has his loyalists among white evangelicals, the constituency he helped deliver for Trump in 2016. But he has distanced himself from Trump over the Jan. 6 insurrection and said Trump is unfit for office. At present, at least, that makes him poison in Trump's GOP.

Also joining the fray was former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a 2016 rival who later helmed Trump's transition team but was denied a place in the Trump administration. Christie came back to aid the Trump reelection effort before bailing, like Pence, after Jan. 6.

Rounding out the week's new candidates was Doug Burgum, a high-tech billionaire who is now North Dakota's governor.

It is worth noting that these three announcements all came in the week of Trump's indictment. That may have been a coincidence, but this particular group of candidates does offer a menu of "moving on" attitudes toward the former president.

Christie in particular has volunteered to lead the pack in excoriating his former ally as a "lonely, self-consumed mirror hog." He has refused to support Trump if he is nominated again.

Some could fit on a Trump ticket, some could not

The latest entrants differ from the other Republicans challenging Trump in 2024 in that none of these three seems remotely possible as a running mate for Trump.

Pence has been there, done that and earned Trump's scorn for not helping him overturn the result of the 2020 election. Christie is mostly a ditto to that. And Trump would probably not need Burgum's help in carrying the Dakotas or appealing to white male entrepreneurs in their 60s.

Any of the previous half-dozen announced candidates could be seen as at least a potential prospect to be Trump's next No. 2. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina and the woman who first appointed him to that job, former Gov. Nikki Haley, would be obvious choices and could add appeal to African Americans and women, respectively. Both have walked a fine line regarding Trump, loath to offend his people but still offering an alternative.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is the distant runner-up to Trump in the polls and certainly strong enough in his own right to scoff at talk of the vice presidency. But there has been talk of a unity ticket that could offer DeSantis the lower half of the ticket in 2024 and the upper half in 2028. That idea could gain traction if the current standings were to hold throughout the primaries.

Any of the others now on the GOP list — like former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, biotech investor Vivek Ramaswamy and talk show host Larry Elder — would have every reason to pinch themselves if considered seriously for running mate. (Hutchinson, however, may have disqualified himself by saying Trump should end his candidacy and concentrate on dealing with his indictments.)

The three newbies bring to six the number of current or former governors now running for the GOP presidential nod. At least four other current or former governors have also been mentioned — Glenn Youngkin of Virginia, Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, Kristi Noem of South Dakota and Larry Hogan of Maryland.

Thus far, all four have remained aloof or seemed to rule out running. But any or all might see things differently if Trump were to lose some of his shine in the legal wranglings to come.

In that event, a raft of Republican senators might also rethink their plans for 2024. No one imagines that Ted Cruz of Texas has lost interest in the presidency, and his state allows him to seek it while also running for reelection to the Senate. But he has said he is concentrating on re-election.

Other senators in the party who have run for president before or shown notable interest include South Carolina's other senator, Lindsey Graham, Arkansas' Tom Cotton and Missouri's Josh Hawley (who like Cruz has said he will run for re-election instead). There may be others as well.

Up to now, of course, Trump has overshadowed and stunted the growth of the Republican field with his outsized presence in the polls. As the news of his latest indictment was breaking, the average of all national polling had him above 50% among Republicans while his closest competitor, DeSantis, was barely above 20%.

How significant is the primary field?

At about 10 top-tier candidates, the current GOP field is not especially large for a cycle in which the party does not have an incumbent in the White House. In 2016 there were 17 Republican contestants at one point, so many that the party and Fox News divided them into two tiers for the first debate in August 2015.

The lesser-known contenders got on TV for the early-evening "undercard debate," widely mocked as the "kiddie table." Only one from the undercard, businesswoman Carly Fiorina, managed to graduate to the primetime group in subsequent rounds.

Similarly, in 2012, the swarm of Republicans eager to take on President Barack Obama was enough to fill a stage. In 2008 there were a dozen contestants in the early going, including several governors and senators, and the initial field seeking to succeed President Bill Clinton in 2000 was also a dozen when a straw poll was done at the Iowa State Fair in Ames in August 1999.

For their part, Democrats managed an even larger crowd of candidates when about two-dozen of them sought to challenge Trump in the 2020 cycle. In their first round of debates in 2019, separate panels of aspirants appeared on different nights.

In typical cycles, incumbent presidents have not had to deal with significant intraparty challenges in the primaries. That was the case for Trump in 2020, Obama in 2012, George W. Bush in 2004, Bill Clinton in 1996, Ronald Reagan in 1984 and Richard Nixon in 1972.

Thus far, President Biden does not have a major intraparty challenger, although polls show at least some Democratic interest in the bid of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a climate-change activist and vaccine skeptic.

In 1992, however, President George H.W. Bush had to beat back an upstart campaign by Republican pundit Patrick Buchanan, who finished a strong second in the New Hampshire primary that year. While Bush prevailed, he lost the air of inevitability that has empowered incumbents in the past and in November of that year he was defeated by Clinton.

In 1980 it was the Democrats who suffered when Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts took on President Jimmy Carter. Although he started ahead in the polls, Kennedy faded in the actual primaries. But the party did not coalesce around Carter that fall, and he lost to the White House to Reagan and the Republicans — who would hold it for the next 12 years.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.