DeSantis, others draw distinctions with Trump in 2024 GOP Nomination Race

LAS VEGAS – A slate of potential candidates effectively opened the race for the 2024 Republican Party presidential nomination over the weekend, testing campaign themes and trying to differentiate themselves from former President Donald Trump.

The Republican Jewish Coalition gathering here capped a weighty week for the GOP after underwhelming midterm election results secured a narrow majority in the House but also sparked friction over Mr. Trump’s role. The former president, who has pleaded not guilty, said on November 15 that he would seek the nomination.

Mr. Trump addressed the crowd of 850 Saturday afternoon via satellite from Florida and received a standing ovation. But the event at the Venetian resort served as the first major platform for others looking to tap into a growing appetite for another. They included former Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu and former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley. Some huddled privately with donors.

No one generated more excitement than Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who held the primetime floor Saturday and took the stage to a reception unlike any other.

“Florida really has a plan for success,” said Mr. DeSantis, whose resounding re-election victory solidified his position as the leading alternative to Mr. Trump. He highlighted his rejection of Covid-19 policies and battle with Walt Disney co.

“We have a lot more to do and I’ve only just begun to struggle.”

The speakers – including Mr. Trump – generally agreed with Republican policies: more domestic energy production, less regulation and taxes, a crackdown on crime and more border security. Some said the disappointments of weak midterm results should not obscure the successes.

“Some of you may be upset, but don’t be upset when it comes to the House,” said Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, who is poised to become president of the new Congress. He cited the GOP’s rise in Democratic strongholds like New York and the addition of new black and Latino members.

Few others have gone as far as Mr. Trump in signaling an intention to run. But the jostling among potential presidential candidates shows the former president will not have a clear field, despite an early announcement designed to scare rivals and lock in supporters.

“It’s not going to be like 2016, when the Republicans had 17 candidates because Donald Trump is just too strong and scary,” said Ari Fleischer, who served as press secretary to President George W. Bush. “If there are multiple candidates, Trump will win hands down. If it’s just one or two bona fide outsider conservatives, it’s a fair fight and Trump might lose it.”

“There’s going to be a lot of people shopping,” said Mr. Fleischer. “And you can feel it in this room.”

Party luminaries walked a fine line over the event from Friday to Saturday, trying to highlight Mr. Trump’s shortcomings without alienating his supporters. Prospective candidates credited the former president’s achievements, with many highlighting his decision to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.

But the speakers also made unmistakable attempts to draw contrasts. Some believed that the party needed to move on from a phase marked by controversy, weak candidates and a series of electoral losses. That echoes sentiments expressed by other elected Republicans, party activists and donors in recent days.

Republican Ron DeSantis was re-elected governor of Florida, according to the Associated Press, defeating Democrat Charlie Crist. Photo: Rebecca Blackwell/Associated Press

“We need to have this family argument, and we need to have it now,” Mr. Christie, who presided over Mr. Trump’s 2016 presidential transition team, however, recalled how Mr. Trump refused to accept his loss four years later.

“That’s where it ended for me. It became my party at that moment … and every moment since then our party has been diminished by that type of leadership,” Mr. Christie said to applause. “It’s time to stop to be afraid of a person.”

Mr. Pence headlined the event Friday night, signing copies of his new memoir, which details his rejection of Mr. Trump’s efforts to pressure him to block congressional certification of President Biden’s victory in 2020. “The American people need to know that our party will be the party that keeps our oath to the Constitution, even when political expediency may suggest that we do something else,” the former vice president said in his speech.

Sir. Pompeo sparked attention ahead of his speech Friday night by tweeting in apparent reference to Mr. Trump: “We were told we’d get tired of winning. But I’m tired of losing. And so are most Republicans.” He continued the implied digs in his speech, saying the party needed to move beyond “celebrity” and push conservative ideas with “competence”.

In a bit of levity, he nodded to Mr Pence and said the next time together they could be on a debate stage and target Mr Trump: “Who knows what nicknames we might have.”

Late. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who has expressed interest in running for president, brought the crowd to its feet Saturday morning with a preacher-like delivery as he energetically paced back and forth, asking the crowd to “stand with me” against anti – Semitism and Biden administration policies.

Other potential candidate speakers included outgoing governor Larry Hogan of Maryland, senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Ms. Haley, who served as ambassador to the United Nations in the Trump administration. She went further than others by expressing serious interest in a presidential run, urging the GOP to expand its reach to minority groups and women.

But for now, most attention is on Messrs. Trump and DeSantis. In his video speech, the former president said: “We always knew that 2022 was not the end. Now we have to take the fight directly to Joe Biden.” He highlighted his withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, which Israel opposed but Mr Biden has tried to revive.

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A moderator said Mr. Trump had transformed the party but noted struggles in the suburbs. Mr. Trump countered that a “specific issue” animated Democrats, referring to abortion.

While Mr. Trump has a strong grassroots fundraising operation, some major donors have said they would no longer support him. Miriam Adelson, the wife of the late casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who contributed millions to support the former president, will remain neutral in the primary, an aide said.

“I’m very grateful for some of the things Trump did, but he has no way now and I’m sorry he announced,” said Eve Stieglitz of Miami, who attended the conference. “Why run to lose and then attack Governor DeSantis? That was it for me when he did it.”

Mitch Keiter of Los Angeles also likes the governor, but he’s still undecided. “DeSantis has the first crack at it,” he said of the candidates expected to challenge Mr. Trump. “He’s probably best suited to bridge the gap between the Trump people and the establishment. But it’s very early.”

Write to Alex Leary at alex.leary@wsj.com

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