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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Columns

Estrich: GOP race begins to heat up

By Susan Estrich
Published: May 29, 2023, 6:01am

Get ready for two more entries into the Republican race for the White House: Ron DeSantis, who has been unofficially running and really began his campaign last week, and Sen. Tim Scott, who also jumped in the race.

Scott, who is not widely known, begins the race with a $22 million war chest and is positioned to be a strong candidate for vice president, at least; DeSantis started out the season with a strong head of steam but was disappointing to many with an awkward campaign style (putting it nicely), hard-right extreme positioning and a losing fight with Disney.

The real question is whether either of them — or Nikki Haley, who has already jumped in, or Chris Christie, who has been testing the waters, or Vivek Ramaswamy, the insurgent billionaire, or anyone else for that matter — has a chance of catching and besting Donald Trump.

Of course, anything is possible in primary politics, particularly with three more investigations, and with them three sets of possible indictments, hanging over the head of the former president, all of them potentially more damaging than the one for payment of hush money to Stormy Daniels.

Still the fact that Trump’s support hardened in the wake of the Stormy Daniels indictment tells you this much: Trump’s base is as solid as any politician’s can be. Whether it would hold if he committed murder on Fifth Avenue, as he once claimed, it’s close. And that is particularly critical if there is a crowded primary.

From Trump’s perspective, the more crowded the better. The more candidates, the smaller the base you need to hold onto to win. The easier it is to skip debates if they look like cattle calls full of lesser candidates. Until someone credible gets a clean shot at Trump, his base is likely big enough and strong enough to protect him.

Equally important, those running against him cannot hope to win in the long run without the support of the Trumpers in the party, which means they have to embrace the Trumpers without endorsing Trump, a fine line to walk with a very difficult man, who says things that frankly no one but him can get away with. Do they join in mocking the woman he sexually assaulted? Do they call him on it when he does?

A debate without Trump won’t mean much, but a debate with him will pose a singular test for the other candidates, who will be judged, by the media if not the voters, by how they treat Trump. Run to his right, as DeSantis is effectively doing, and you drive off a general election cliff.

The idea of DeSantis, the governor who won Florida in a landslide, was a powerful one, with a great deal of support from Fox News, and the early polls supported that idea. The reality, not so much.

The early reviews of the candidate were of someone who simply didn’t engage in retail politics with any relish. He did not win over the folks he was meeting with, which is essential for a challenger in early states like Iowa and New Hampshire.

He made putting a hard-right agenda through the Florida Legislature — on everything from abortion to gay rights to education to Mickey Mouse and Disney — ahead of campaigning for the presidency. While Trump is vulnerable to arguments that he is unelectable because of his personal failings, DeSantis is vulnerable to the argument that his ideological rigidity has pushed him so far right that he is out of the mainstream of American politics.

Ultimately, the nominating process tends to be dominated by ideological activists at both ends of the spectrum, while general elections are decided not by hardcore voters but by those somewhere in the middle, which is not where DeSantis is, not even close.

Based on what he has done to date, DeSantis’ pledge to do for America what he has done for Florida may not frighten the right wing of the Republican Party, many of them Trumpers, but it may not hold up so well among general election voters, who overwhelmingly support Roe v. Wade and think well of Mickey Mouse. And Trump remains the 600-pound gorilla on the Republican side.