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The incredibly shrinking GOP presidential contest

GOP hopefuls unable to change Trump frontrunner status

Of all the GOP presidential hopefuls who are not Donald Trump, Nikki Haley has run the most interesting campaign.
Of all the GOP presidential hopefuls who are not Donald Trump, Nikki Haley has run the most interesting campaign. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Corrected 5:28 p.m. | Stop the presses. Former Vice President Mike Pence and former Texas Rep. Will Hurd are out of the 2024 GOP presidential contest. That development would be shocking if the two had ever been relevant in the fight for the nomination. Alas, neither was.

Their exits leave a handful of other competitors who also seem headed nowhere.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie remains combative, clever, and fun to watch. But he is an anti-Trumper in a pro-Trump party, and therefore not a serious contender for his party’s presidential nomination — even though he will participate in the third debate, in Miami.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, who tries to talk about issues and his successes in North Dakota, is also a nonfactor. Unfortunately for him, most in the media don’t want to talk about his agenda or North Dakota, and polling shows that he hasn’t made himself into a serious alternative to the top contenders.

I will mourn the exit of Burgum’s eyebrows from the race, but otherwise few will miss him.

Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson thinks he is still in the race, which is all you need to know to conclude how irrelevant he is. While he often sounds like the most reasonable and thoughtful hopeful, Hutchinson has never been a serious contender for his party’s presidential nomination, in part because he has sounded reasonable and thoughtful.

Being generous, that leaves just four interesting candidates, other than frontrunner Donald Trump, worthy of your attention: South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.

Scott, home-state woes

Scott has raised enough money to appear in Wednesday’s debate, and reporters like his “happy conservative” style and messaging. They keep putting him on TV, but that hasn’t boosted his standing in polls dramatically. 

Scott has been critical of Trump, but not as negative and confrontational as Christie or Hutchinson. And that is part of Scott’s problem. He tries to walk such a fine line that he can’t rally pro-Trump or anti-Trump Republican voters.

Of course, Scott’s biggest problem isn’t Trump. It’s Haley, who in addition to serving as chief executive of the Palmetto State governor was also Trump’s United Nations ambassador.

South Carolina’s primary is scheduled for Feb. 24, making it the fourth contest. It is difficult to imagine that the state’s primary won’t be a referendum on the two home-state candidates.

After all, if Scott can’t finish ahead of Haley in the South Carolina GOP presidential primary, how can he expect to finish ahead of her anywhere?

Scott barely registers in key state and national polls, while Haley has become a shining star in the party. In some crucial state polls, she is running second, while in others she is third.

Scott, on the other hand, has been chugging along in single digits — sometimes the low single digits. In New Hampshire, for example, Haley is in the mid-teens while Scott sits around 4 percentage points, according to the most recent RealClearPolitics polling average in the Granite State. In their home state, Haley gets around 19 percent to 8 percent for Scott, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average there. National polls show the same trend.

DeSantis, lost momentum

DeSantis continues to present himself as if he is a formidable threat to Trump, even though key state and national survey data tell a different story.

Those polls show DeSantis running second or third but losing steam over the past few months. For example, while the Florida governor continues to sit in second place in national polls, he is in third place – behind Trump and Haley – in both New Hampshire and South Carolina.

DeSantis comes across as too stiff, and he doesn’t seem genuine.

Of course, he can raise money, and he comes from a state with a lot of delegates at stake. He also echoes Trump’s confrontational style and populist views, giving him an opportunity to step into Trump’s position should the former president leave the race for any reason. 

But that is not the same thing as saying that DeSantis can overtake Trump. He can’t.

Ramaswamy, boom and bust

And then there is Ramaswamy, a 38-year-old businessman who has never run for office before but is a confident talker.

Ramaswamy did have a bit of a boomlet in August. 

As Time reporter Mini Racker wrote back then, Ramaswamy’s “everywhere-all-at-once strategy,” and his “talent for presenting bomb-throwing anti-establishment sentiment in an affable package,” has made him “the closest thing the GOP primary has had to a breakout star.”

But the political neophyte’s momentum quickly faded. He now generally runs fourth or fifth in early primary state and national polling. 

The first-time candidate comes off as brash and smug, and while those traits probably are no longer disqualifying, they make him little more than a Trump Mini-Me.

Haley, picking up the pace

Haley has been the most interesting contender so far. Of course, she still trails Trump in individual states and in national polling, and she has a long way to go before she can seriously threaten the former president. 

Indeed, given Trump’s popularity in the party, it appears unlikely that she will ever really challenge him before he wraps up the Republican nomination.

But Haley has run an interesting campaign, and her combination of foreign policy experience (as U.N. ambassador) and executive experience (as governor) combine to give her a breadth of experience that few other hopefuls in the race have.

Haley and DeSantis could well fight it out for second place in the GOP contest. That might not mean much, but it would be a significant outcome for Haley, who started her presidential bid as a huge question mark. It would also be a disappointing outcome for DeSantis, who hoped to challenge Trump seriously.

Trump, of course, remains a prohibitive favorite for the Republican presidential nomination, even though he has dissed the party by refusing to participate in debates and has shown he cares more about himself than the country.

This column was revised to correctly identify Vivek Ramaswamy.

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