GOP Hopefuls Start Tiptoeing Toward 2024 in Long Shadow of Trump

Former U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo is laying the foundation for a possible 2024 presidential run with appearances this week in early primary states, moves that risk alienating Donald Trump, who could be either his biggest asset or his toughest rival.

Potential Republican presidential candidates like Pompeo are heading to Iowa, New Hampshire and key battleground states like Florida, beginning to build an operation and supporting down-ballot candidates. But all those moves will be for naught if Trump decides to seek another term, a campaign that at this point is widely expected to overtake any other.

Trump’s not making any decisive moves while teasing that he’s not out of the game, putting much of the 2024 field in a quandary. Hesitation is not an option with as many as a dozen possible candidates vying for the GOP nomination.

“This is the beginning, I believe, of testing the water,” said Jeff Kaufmann, chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa. “This is starting way earlier than it has in the past, and there’s a little more intensity.”

Still, Kaufmann said it’s “a waiting game” for Republicans until Trump decides what he’s going to do. Two recent national polls show a majority of Republicans would support him should he run again in 2024.

GOP Hopefuls Start Tiptoeing Toward 2024 in Long Shadow of Trump

The uncertainty has left would-be successors to build relationships with the former president’s formidable base of supporters without his fundraising or endorsement.

Pompeo, 57, who hasn’t been shy about his political ambitions, is scheduled to start a two-day trip to Iowa on Thursday that will feature receptions and meals with power brokers and party activists that define early presidential campaigning, including lunch at the Bull Moose Club in Des Moines on Friday with Terry Branstad, a former Iowa governor and Trump’s ambassador to China.

Then on Monday, Pompeo is participating in a virtual fund-raiser in New Hampshire with Matt Mowers, a former State Department official, and the New Hampshire Republican State Committee in support of Merrimack Town Councilor Bill Boyd, a candidate for the state Legislature.

On Wednesday, Pompeo spoke via livestream with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an influential conservative group in a key Republican state where he would likely compete for the 2024 nomination against one of the state’s senators, Ted Cruz. Pompeo answered a question about why he’s optimistic about America by citing the U.S. response to the coronavirus, the economic challenges it created and “the events that happened in the election and through Jan. 6.”

“I watched how America responded to that,” Pompeo said in a muted criticism of the storming of the U.S. Capitol. “I watched our Constitution hold. I watched people rally around the central understanding that, no, we’re not going to let this take America in a direction we don’t want it to go and grab hold of that in a serious way.”

Pompeo, however, does not have the field to himself.

Senator Rick Scott of Florida is scheduled to attend a Republican Party of Iowa regional reception on April 1, and South Carolina Senator Tim Scott is expected to be in the state on April 15.

Former Vice President Mike Pence, who angered Trump by refusing to reject Electoral College votes for Joe Biden on Jan. 6, is scheduled to make his first public appearance since leaving office, on April 29 in the early-primary state of South Carolina with the Palmetto Family Council, a social-conservative group.

“Fortune favors the bold, and I don’t think anybody really knows ultimately what the president’s intentions are,” said David Kochel, a veteran Iowa Republican strategist. “There’s no end to the justification for coming to Iowa. It doesn’t lock anybody into a campaign, but not coming sure would lock you out of one.”

Pugnacious Tweets

Since stepping down as America’s top diplomat, Pompeo’s tweets have taken on a more pugnacious tone in keeping with his effort to court the Trump base.

“For years, I’ve watched the Left apologize for America instead of defending her basic freedoms,” Pompeo tweeted on March 15. “America leads best when our interests and values are placed FIRST, not last.”

He also tweeted “1,327 days” on March 19 -- the exact number until the 2024 presidential election.

Trump has suggested he’ll decide whether to seek another term after the midterm elections next year, telling Fox News on March 16 that Republicans have a good chance to take back control of the House and Senate “and, frankly, we will make our decision after that.”

Asked by Fox News contributor Lisa Boothe on a podcast that posted Monday which leaders he thinks are the future of the Republican Party, Trump cited Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, Cruz, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, former White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who is running for Arkansas governor, and South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem. He did not mention Pompeo.

When asked who he thinks should run for president if he declines, Trump said “some of those names I guess just mentioned, perhaps, and others. There’s a pretty deep bench.”

Another potential 2024 candidate Trump also didn’t mention was Nikki Haley, his former ambassador to the United Nations and a former South Carolina governor. She rebuked him over his false claims that the November election had been stolen and for his fiery speech to the crowd that stormed the Capitol She told Politico that Trump “went down a path he shouldn’t have, and we shouldn’t have followed him.”

Pompeo didn’t return a message seeking comment. A Republican strategist familiar with his thinking said he’s focused on helping the party win control of the U.S. House and Senate in 2022.

But when Fox News host Sean Hannity asked him earlier this month whether he’d consider getting in the 2024 race if Trump didn’t, Pompeo said, “I’m always up for a good fight” -- and he agreed with Hannity that his answer meant “a strong maybe.”

Pompeo was a congressman from Kansas before Trump nominated him as CIA director. He replaced Rex Tillerson as secretary of State in 2018. During his time at the State Department, Pompeo often scheduled domestic events that appeared designed to bolster support among religious leaders, donors and the business world more than further diplomacy.

Messages to the Heartland

During a visit to Kansas in 2019, he met with Republican mega-donor Charles Koch. He once made an unannounced stop at The Villages, the Republican-heavy retirement community in Florida. And he stopped periodically in Iowa, Wisconsin and Kansas, leading to speculation that he was going to come back and run for governor or the Senate. He decided against a 2020 Senate bid.

Pompeo explained those visits as efforts to bring the administration’s foreign policy message to the American heartland.

Voters in Iowa and the other early-primary states will check out the prospective presidential candidates, even if their loyalties lie with Trump, said Peter Hanson, an associate professor of political science at Grinnell College in Iowa, and the director of the Grinnell College National Poll.

“Certainly, until Trump makes an announcement, they’re going to take a hard look at anyone who comes,” Hanson said. “They’re not going to hold it against somebody for coming here to test the waters while the former president is making a decision.”

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