(CNN) — Donald Trump is raising the nightmare scenario for Republicans in the 2024 presidential election — that he might refuse to endorse the party’s nominee if he loses his primary race.
The former president’s warning comes as he escalates efforts to try to scare off or damage potential party rivals who are maneuvering ahead of their own possible campaign launches as a so-far-sleepy GOP contest bursts into life.
Specifically, Trump is turning on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and his former secretary of state, Mike Pompeo. These veiled threats foretell his likely attempts to stigmatize their brands in the eyes of Republican primary voters and mirror his successful 2016 caricaturing of rivals. So far, however, his scare tactics aren’t working.
In an appearance Thursday on conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt’s show, Trump initiated his most concentrated effort yet to intimidate the potential GOP primary field. When asked by Hewitt whether he would commit to backing the GOP nominee if it wasn’t him, he hedged.
“It would depend. I would give you the same answer I gave in 2016 during the debate. … It would have to depend on who the nominee was,” Trump said. The ex-president’s comment plays into fears that he could dampen turnout among his own loyal voters in the GOP were he to oppose the party’s 2024 presidential nominee or claim that the primary race was rigged against him.
It also highlights a needle his potential challengers must thread — how to build their own coalitions without alienating Trump supporters with full-on attacks on the former president. But given rising debate about Trump’s own standing in the GOP after his election loss in 2020 and a disastrous midterm intervention last year, it also raises the question of whether the twice-impeached former commander in chief is overestimating his own level of support.
Trump also used the interview to land new blows on potential rivals for the nomination — especially Haley, who had previously said she wouldn’t run against him.
“She’s a very ambitious person. She just couldn’t stay in a seat. I said, ‘You know what, Nikki, if you want to run, you go ahead and run,'” Trump told Hewitt. And he also took a jab at Pompeo and his new autobiography.
“I haven’t seen the book yet. I haven’t read it, though I heard he was generally nice. … He took a little bit more credit than he should, but that’s OK with me,” Trump said, before adding: “We did a great job. I got along very well with Mike.”
Haley is expected to launch a campaign on February 15 in Charleston, a source familiar with her plans told CNN Tuesday. Pompeo, promoting his score-settling new book on the conservative media circuit, is making the kind of political throat-clearing noises typical of would-be candidates. And South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott is setting off on a listening tour focusing on faith. The first two stops just happen to include Iowa and his own state — early voting pillars that will frame the GOP primary contest early next year.
This sudden flurry of activity follows Trump’s initial-two state campaign swing last weekend, which saw the former president slam another potential rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who he claims is showing disloyalty by considering his own run. This prompted a veiled counter-punch from the rising star of Republican politics, who noted pointedly that he — unlike you know who — had won reelection.
Trump remains the only declared GOP candidate and this early shadow boxing comes a year before ballots are cast in the only true test of political viability. But the first stirrings of the Republican race are important because they will help shape what is already certain to be a turbulent campaign that, given the dominance of election denialism in the GOP’s grassroots, could be another election that tests US democracy.
Increasingly clear indications of several forming campaigns are notable because they appear to show that Trump, who has been the most influential force in the GOP ever since 2016, is not so prohibitively formidable that he cannot be challenged by serious rivals.
It would be too much to say that his rivals sense weakness given the former president’s deeply loyal bond with activist Republicans who decide primaries. Former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a moderate Republican who is hardly a Trump acolyte and himself considering a 2024 bid, said when pressed in an interview with Hewitt on Thursday that he would support Trump if he were the party’s nominee.
But Trump’s so-so fundraising to date, his low-energy launch last year and his infrequent campaign appearances underscore his electoral liabilities, especially after his often-disastrous midterm interventions.
Still, having multiple rivals would help Trump, as it did in 2016, since the winner-take-all nature of most Republican primaries allows a candidate with a mere plurality of votes to build up big delegate leads in a crowded field.
In other words, if Trump can split the opposition, he can win the primary, but that’s no guarantee for the general election given that the twice-impeached former president left Washington in disgrace after trying to steal an election and fomenting a mob attack on the US Capitol.
Haley’s expected campaign launch will highlight a political persona with considerable appeal as Republicans wonder how to broaden their coalition after their general election loss in 2020. Haley has an advantage as the former governor of a southern state that could be one of the most decisive primary battlegrounds, and her career has long been on a trajectory to a presidential race. Her candidacy would bring the historic potential of the first woman in the Oval Office and her South Asian heritage could help the GOP win back women and more moderate voters. She added some foreign policy experience to her resume with a spell as the US ambassador to the United Nations under Trump.
Unlike many of his Cabinet members, she engineered a smooth exit from the Trump administration on her own terms. Her photo-op departure meeting with Trump in the Oval Office even then looked like potential footage for a future Republican primary campaign. Haley is not being subtle about her pitch — one that could allow her to gently argue that it’s time to move on from the ex-president and President Joe Biden without directly repudiating the Trump presidency and his fans.
“It is time for a new generation. It is time for more leadership. … We have to remember, too, we have lost the last seven out of eight popular votes for president,” Haley said in a Fox News interview last month. “It is time we get a Republican in there that can lead and that can win a general election.”
She added: “I don’t think you need to be 80 years old to be a leader in DC.”
Yet the most fundamental question that Haley will face is whether the Republican base, which has rewarded culture warriors, extreme “Make America Great Again” rhetoric and election denialists, has any interest at all in what she plans to sell.
Her credentials look formidable in isolation but less so when considering the values of the party whose nomination she is seeking. For example, is there really a market in the GOP for a more unifying, multicultural, less strident delivery vehicle for Trump’s “America First” creed? After all, the ex-president’s bombast, occasional profanity and laceration of liberal government and media elites create more of an emotional rather than a directly ideological connection with his biggest fans.
For sure, Haley might have advantages in a general election that would elude Trump, but she’s got to get past him first.
Flip flopping on Trump
Haley’s struggles to reconcile her past links with Trump and his wilder, anti-democratic outbursts, suggest she is vulnerable to counter-attacks from the former president focusing on her ambition and perceived shifting loyalties.
For instance, after leaving the administration on good terms, she rebuked her party for following Trump down a “path he shouldn’t have” taken with his election denialism that led to the January 6, 2021, insurrection. But with Trump still a powerful figure in the GOP, she repositioned herself in October 2021.
“We need him in the Republican Party. I don’t want us to go back to the days before Trump,” Haley said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.
Trump, having said over the weekend that he’d told her to “do it” when she called him, is already homing in on Haley’s reversals. He put out a video on his Truth Social network Wednesday of Haley saying in 2021 that she wouldn’t run for president if he did.
And the former South Carolina governor’s casting around for the GOP sweet spot has some observers wondering exactly how she will build a sufficiently wide support base to take her to the nomination.
“I think there is just room for three candidates in this race. The more anti-Trumper — not a never Trumper, the Trump lite, which is where Ron DeSantis is, (and) Nikki Haley, and then Trump himself,” said former Illinois Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger, who is now a senior CNN political commentator. “Nikki Haley’s struggle is going to be: she’s been pro-Trump, anti-Trump, she said she isn’t going to run if he runs, now he is going to run. She doesn’t really have a natural constituency yet. She’s a smart lady, so we will see how she goes.”
Pompeo eyeing a campaign
Haley isn’t the only Republican sending signals that they are ready to challenge Trump. Pompeo is delivering broad hints of a potential 2024 campaign.
“I’ve spent time in Iowa and New Hampshire. This is not random,” he said at a forum in Washington, DC, on Wednesday. “We’re just trying to figure our way through this. It is an unbelievably momentous decision to say you believe you should be the leader of the United States of America,” he added.
Pompeo appears to have an even more acute positioning issue than Haley, since he was the ex-president’s effective enforcer at the State Department and while director of the CIA, and shared many of the populist, nationalist foreign policy instincts of his former boss. Almost everything that a GOP primary voter could get from Pompeo, they might be able to get from Trump, although the West Point graduate and former Kansas congressman would no doubt argue that he boasts a calmer temperament.
But Pompeo — like Haley, Scott, ex-Vice President Mike Pence, more marginal candidates and even DeSantis, if he gets in the race — all face the same problem. They might not fear Trump, but that doesn’t mean they can beat him.