CNN
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In the two months since Donald Trump launched his third presidential campaign, potential rivals have been casting doubt over his inevitability as the GOP nominee – whispering from the sidelines that he has lost his touch, that there are cracks in his base, that his strange absence from the campaign trail will cost him later on.

But diminished or not, Trump has still managed to inspire a game of chicken. His most likely competitors want to go toe-to-toe with him eventually – just not at the outset of their campaigns.

While nearly a dozen 2024 campaign operatives and advisers who spoke to CNN on the condition of anonymity insisted that Trump’s political appeal is more limited than ever, most said they still wouldn’t want their horse to be first in the race after him. Their reasons vary. Some worry about sustainability, wanting to saturate the airwaves just before the early contests in Iowa and New Hampshire instead of burning through cash to build name ID while Trump is pummeling them on his Truth Social platform without distraction. Others are hesitant to subject themselves to the concentrated attacks they would no doubt face from the former president and other potential rivals if they were next to jump in, unsure if the earned media in a two-person field would work for or against them.

It’s a stark contrast from four years ago. By the end of January 2019, nine Democrats had already announced their 2020 presidential campaigns or exploratory committees, including future Vice President Kamala Harris, underscoring just how sleepy the 2024 cycle has been for Republicans so far.

“The opportunity for anyone to shine is when they are man-to-man with Trump,” veteran GOP strategist Rob Stutzman said. “Any one of these guys can deliver the message that Republicans have been losing a lot lately and that Trump cost us the Senate and the last two elections through his poor judgment. The question is, who wants to go out and be the first to say that?”

“I’m not sure that any 2024 prospective or potential candidate is really incentivized to announce early on,” said an adviser to former Vice President Mike Pence, who is widely expected to run.

Ultimately, the calculations being made by likely 2024 contenders and their allies speak volumes about how they perceive the 45th president as well as each other. And it is all unfolding as Trump, who announced his bid just a week after his party’s underwhelming midterm election, plows ahead, surrounded by minimal staff, who have perplexed allies with some of their recent decisions. That includes failing to stop a dinner he hosted with White supremacist Nick Fuentes around Thanksgiving or his recent broadsides against anti-abortion conservatives. Trump has sought to capitalize on his 11th-hour rescue of Kevin McCarthy, who failed on 14 ballots before finally being elected House speaker after the former president made a fresh round of calls to McCarthy’s detractors. But some allies believe his lack of campaign travel and early missteps have created an opening for alternative candidates.

“If he was still an 800-pound gorilla, I don’t think a lot of these people would ultimately get in, but the change of tune we’re seeing from [Nikki] Haley and others – they’re not doing that because he’s strong,” said a person close to Trump who spoke with him recently. Haley, a once-popular governor of South Carolina during the tea party movement and Trump’s own former United Nations ambassador, has recently moved the goal posts on her willingness to run against her old boss. She told a group of Jewish Republican donors in late November that she would consider a 2024 bid “in a serious way” – a year and a half after declaring in an April 2021 press conference, “I would not run if President Trump ran.”

A second person close to Trump said the former president doesn’t mind being the only declared candidate so far but is ready and eager to take on challengers, especially those who served in his administration or for whom he has played an integral role in their political careers.

Of course, no potential rival has drawn Trump’s ire as much as Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor who soared to popularity among conservatives after waging war against public health officials and bureaucrats during the coronavirus pandemic and more recently against “woke” corporations. Trump, who was scrutinized by allies and donors shortly before the midterms for dismissing his home-state governor as “DeSanctimonious” during a campaign stop, has continued to gripe about DeSantis’ unofficial coronation as his heir apparent since announcing his own presidential campaign.

“Obviously, DeSantis owes a lot of his political capital to Donald Trump, but that’s different than serving in an administration and being a foot soldier for him until the very end, if not beyond that,” said the person who spoke with Trump recently.

Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung said the former president is working to build a campaign that lasts through “the next 22 months” and will be making announcements in the next few weeks on upcoming political events. “This isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon,” Cheung said.

So far, DeSantis has been operating on his own timeline – a luxury afforded to him after his 19-point reelection victory in November further fortified his position as the leading Trump alternative.

The Republican-controlled Florida legislature will begin its next regular session in March, during which DeSantis is expected to push for legislation to expand gun ownership rights, impose new restrictions on abortion access and curb the power of teachers’ unions in his state, according to two sources familiar with his plans. Florida lawmakers are also expected to consider repealing a law that would force DeSantis to resign as governor if he chose to compete in the 2024 presidential primary.

“DeSantis has all the time in the world and can use time to his benefit. He can lay out his agenda through the legislative session and continue to build out his fundraising and political apparatus,” said one of the people familiar with his plans.

As previously reported by CNN, DeSantis is eyeing May or June for a potential campaign launch after the state legislative session is over. His allies believe lesser-known candidates, or those who lack the same level of grassroots enthusiasm the Florida governor has attracted, “will have to go early, otherwise no one will pay attention to them.” They also believe such moves would temporarily draw Trump’s attention away from the Florida governor.

In the coming months, said a person close to DeSantis, the governor is expected to devote more time to his national profile with events outside Florida, though not necessarily in Iowa or New Hampshire.

“He’ll do major events that will draw attention. Not all the cattle calls you can think of, but between now and the beginning of our session, there will be some signature events for him. It won’t be Ron DeSantis in Tallahassee or Miami,” this person said, adding that the governor will begin to “flex his national political muscle more.”

Meanwhile, DeSantis has been attracting support from deep-pocket donors, including several who previously contributed to Trump but have pledged privately to choose the Florida governor in a primary, according to people familiar with such discussions. Less than a month after the November midterm election, DeSantis hobnobbed with some of his top donors in Miami to discuss his political future, according to a person briefed on the event.

“I think DeSantis has the best chance as things stand today. I’ve known him for quite some time, even before he ran for governor. He’s a very smart and hardworking person,” said Thomas Peterffy, a billionaire GOP donor who has previously supported Trump.

One GOP operative who is close to several 2024 hopefuls said DeSantis is “the only person who really fills the void from an electability standpoint for voters who love Trump but are worried that Democrats will steal the election again, who don’t think he can win or who think it’s time for someone else.”

“The timeline that he has because of this position is long. So if you’re a candidate who believes he is going to run, you really need to make a March or April move so you have time to get your feet planted and stay in the conversation before he enters the picture,” the operative said.

Still, sources close to some of DeSantis’ potential 2024 rivals insist they do not envy his position, with several likening him to Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, two early favorites in the 2016 cycle whose fortunes quickly faded.

“[DeSantis] occupies this position right now where he is the heir apparent and is presumed to be running, and the more and more these polls come out, he’s going to be considered more and more seriously by the press and with that comes more scrutiny,” the Pence adviser said.

Allies of Glenn Youngkin, another popular Republican who is considering a 2024 bid, said the Virginia governor also benefits from being able to take his time with a decision and announcement. A person close to Youngkin said the former Carlyle Group executive could self-fund around $20 million, an amount that would give him a leg up over opponents relying on outside money but is insufficient to keep any candidate afloat from the launch of their campaign through the GOP’s nominating convention in July 2024. Youngkin also potentially has more appeal to moderate Republicans than DeSantis, who has endeared himself to conservatives and Trump’s base with his own brash tactics. The term-limited governor gathered with donors last fall to discuss his future beyond Richmond and has recently said he is “humbled” by the support he’s received for a potential 2024 campaign.

“Youngkin, to me, is the guy who comes up through the floorboards later in the process if someone missteps,” said Stutzman, the veteran GOP strategist.

“I would be utterly shocked if Glenn Youngkin doesn’t get in this race. He has the least to lose since he cannot run for governor again,” said a person close to Trump.

For other prospective candidates, urgency does not appear to be a major factor in their discernment process – nor, their allies insist, does Trump.

Pence, for instance, spent the holidays discussing his political future with his wife, Karen, and their three adult children and their spouses, according to an adviser. The former vice president frequented Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina throughout 2022 and began this year with an appearance at a Dallas megachurch to promote a memoir about his time in office. Before Christmas, Pence huddled with donors in New York to discuss his political future.

“Don’t conflate not announcing with sitting back,” said the Pence adviser, who considers “the end of the first quarter” of 2023 a reasonable deadline for the former vice president to launch a White House bid or punt on the 2024 cycle.

Pence’s team insists that if he runs in 2024, he will have reached that decision through prayer, family support and a desire to build on the conservative policy victories he helped implement as vice president. And while the prospect of challenging his former boss in a primary isn’t a huge factor, according to the adviser, Pence and his allies have taken notice of the Trump campaign’s trajectory so far.

“It provides us an opportunity to show the contrast between the two and have that split screen. Donald Trump sends out that tweet about the pro-life movement and Mike Pence is going to host people in his office for the March for Life,” said the adviser, referring to next week’s annual march in Washington by abortion opponents and Trump’s recent criticism of anti-abortion Republicans who wanted the controversial issue to feature prominently in the midterm elections.

That sentiment is shared by others who have spent the past year laying the groundwork and watching for cracks in Trump’s support.

A person close to Haley said she is still deciding whether to proceed with a presidential bid, something she previously swore not to do if Trump entered the 2024 primary. Her role as a closing surrogate for Republican Senate candidates Mehmet Oz, Herschel Walker, Don Bolduc and Ron Johnson was meant to emphasize her appeal to swing voters and suburban women, though only Johnson, an incumbent, won his contest.

Nevertheless, Haley will make the case that she can appeal to the two voting blocs, which the GOP has struggled with in recent elections, if she does decide to run.

The former South Carolina governor also believes she has a strong shot at winning the all-important primary in her home state, including against Trump, and has been laying the groundwork there and elsewhere to prepare for a potential campaign. But while her staff is expected to spend significantly more time in South Carolina beginning this month, people familiar with her thinking said Haley doesn’t feel a major rush to enter the 2024 contest.

Both Haley and Pence allies said the appetite for candidates other than Trump in early-state and national surveys has emboldened their potential candidates as they look toward 2024.

“People always think they know exactly how presidential politics will play out. If we’ve learned anything over the past six years, it’s that no one knows anything at this point. The fact that Trump voters are willing to consider a second option means there’s a crack – and someone will break it open,” said one GOP strategist, who requested anonymity due to the person’s involvement with a possible 2024 campaign.

While representatives for Mike Pompeo did not respond to multiple requests for comment, one person close to the former US secretary of state said he is nearing a decision – and potential announcement – on 2024 and has been hard at work behind the scenes to build relationships with donors and key Republicans in some of the earliest voting states. Pompeo has previously said he intends to make his next steps known by this spring, though this person said his post-midterm criticism of Trump may foreshadow an earlier announcement. Just days after the November 8 midterm election, Pompeo appeared to take aim at Trump in a tweet: “We were told we’d get tired of winning. But I’m tired of losing. And so are most Republicans.”

The foot-dragging among 2024 hopefuls has seemingly extended to Republicans who lack ties to Trump, unlike the handful of former allies who may or may not challenge him.

Several Trump critics, for whom appealing to his base likely wouldn’t matter as much to their long-term strategy, have also expressed an interest in taking their time with an announcement. They include outgoing Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who spent his last day in office earlier this week visiting Iowa for a breakfast with GOP legislators and has said he is currently exploring a presidential campaign.

“We’re doing all the things that are necessary,” Hutchinson told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt earlier this month. “I’m going to be in the key states. I’m going to be talking about what I believe in, in the future for our country, from border security to energy policy. And we’ll see where that goes and make a decision based upon the level of support.”

Sununu, meanwhile, recently acknowledged that he is having “conversations” about 2024 after winning reelection in November to a fourth two-year term by more than 15 points. He told Fox News on Wednesday, “I don’t think you’re gonna see folks really jump into this race until summer, especially governors.”

“As we hit late in 2023, you’ll see folks decide whether they really want to get in and take this thing on,” Sununu said.

In a separate interview Wednesday with CNN’s Erin Burnett, Sununu offered a glimpse into how he might go after one potential top-tier opponent if they both run.

“I think Ron’s a good governor,” he said in reference to DeSantis. “We agree on a lot, but we have very different styles. We both very much agree that we have to push back on this woke stuff… I’m more of a conservative principles free market guy, I think, more than Ron is. He’s trying to get some headlines, and he’s doing a good job of it.”

While few, if any, prospective candidates seem eager to follow Trump, some sources involved with 2024 candidates said the slow-walk approach could be working against the former president’s future opponents. Whatever broadsides Trump launches against his opponents, it’s unlikely they will carry the same shock value they did during the crowded 2016 GOP primary, when his brash political brand was a novelty.

“It was great TV, and now it’s sort of a worn-out act, and everybody is ready for it. So if you get in first, you get to see what he’s going to do to you, and I think there’s a benefit to that,” said the person close to Trump. “Plus, I think there’s a lot of super PAC money out there for a first-mover, too.”

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