Opinion: A large GOP field is key to Trump’s success
The New Hampshire primary is at least 14 months away, but already the shape of the contest is becoming as clear as the view of the early snowcap on Mount Washington from the scenic vista along Route 16.
Though wounded in last month’s midterm congressional elections, though blamed by party leaders for the failure of the Republican red wave to sweep away scores of Democratic lawmakers, though spurned by GOP donors who believe he is yesterday’s cat food, though degraded as a force by the mainstream media, Donald Trump possesses great assets in his drive to win a second term: Ron DeSantis. Nikki Haley. Mike Pompeo. Mike Pence. Tim Scott. Rick Scott. Glenn Youngkin. Chris Christie. Kristi Noem. Chris Sununu.
Conventional wisdom (you have read it everywhere): The 10 potential Republican presidential candidates, maybe more, who smell blood in Republican waters is a strong sign that Trump can’t be nominated.
New wisdom (you’re reading it here): The way to assure that Trump wins the GOP presidential nomination is for all of them to try to weaken him in the Iowa caucuses and here in the New Hampshire primary.
The dramatic change in Trump’s fortunes came as a late autumn surprise, like the snowfall that left the hills around here garlanded in white, the fields shrouded in an icy crust, the sidewalks covered with a crumbly brittle. In an instant, the landscape changed.
That transformation in the physical landscape has been accompanied by a dramatic transformation in the political landscape. Accustomed to being on the offensive, Trump suddenly is on the defensive. Nearly three-fifths of Americans wish he wouldn’t run, according to the Quinnipiac Poll.
Trump’s campaign announcement was designed to freeze the field (keeping rivals away), energize the troops (dispirited by the election flop) — and show there still was fight in the old warrior, that in heartbreak he retained strength.
But what he truly needs is to seem so weak that all 10 of them, and with any luck several more, enter the field. Hello, Ted Cruz, whose father Trump once accused of assisting in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Hello, Marco Rubio, who Trump once disparaged as “Little Marco.” Hello, Larry Hogan, a relentless critic of Trump, firing missiles from Annapolis, where he is completing two terms as Maryland’s governor.
Come on in, Trump should be saying, the water’s warm.
The water actually should be seen as a cold shower. If all or even a couple of them join the campaign, the rest of the field will split the vote, Trump will summon his base — about a third of the GOP vote here — and he’ll be as golden as the gold-plated glass in Trump International Hotel Las Vegas.
Trump’s base here is unusually strong, even in the wake of his dinner with an antisemite and a white supremacist. In a multi-candidate race, a small share of the vote could sway the primary.
“Trump’s people here are motivated,” said state Rep. Al Baldasaro, a Trump campaign official who was at Mar-a-Lago for the former president’s campaign announcement. “The silent majority is alive and well. The fake media keeps saying he has nothing going for him and has no supporters. They’ll see. The enthusiasm for him here is unbelievable. Other candidates will be wasting a lot of money and time. I have seen these political people come and go for years, and I can tell you that Trump is going to smoke them all.”
The testimony of Billy Cuccio underlined the point. Seven years ago, Cuccio invited three dozen friends into the cozy bar of his Lobster Trap restaurant, set out wings and stuffed mushrooms and settled back to watch Trump’s first debate performance on giant television screens. The neophyte candidate didn’t disappoint, dishing out politically incorrect comments on political correctness and all manner of issues.
Cuccio’s view in 2015: “He’s a businessman, not a lifelong politician … Everyone else is worried about how (their stand) comes out. He doesn’t care.”
Cuccio’s view in 2022: “A lot of Republicans are wishy-washy. They roll over. Trump fights.”
Fight he does, and once again he has a real fight on his hands.
Republicans in Iowa, which holds the first caucus of the 2024 campaign, have made a “come-one come-all” call to even the merest possible challenger; Iowans love a political event as much as the Granite Staters do; the more the merrier. Warning to the Trump camp: Two-time Trump endorser Terry Branstad, who Trump appointed ambassador to China, is suggesting he has an open mind about Republicans in 2024.
Here in New Hampshire, the state Republican committee is all in for Trump — but this is a state where the surface sometimes masks the truth beneath. As a literal example, many plow operators didn’t clear the first snowfall from local dirt roadways because the ground beneath wasn’t yet frozen.
Truth beneath the political surface: The real power center isn’t party officers but Gov. Sununu, an ardent Trump critic reelected to his fourth term by more than 15 points. He is weighing a presidential campaign himself.
The question on politicos’ minds here: Would a Sununu challenge be an irresistible lure for Trump into the fray here? Or would he argue a Sununu campaign would signal — here is a favorite Trump riposte — that the fix was in?
The prospect that a multicandidate field would work to Trump’s advantage is taking hold. And warnings are flying like the snowflakes of the past several weeks.
“In 2016, Trump was aided by a very divided Republican field, which allowed him to win a lot of early primaries with far less than a majority of the vote,” said William Mayer, the Northeastern University political scientist who is co-editor of “The Elephant in the Room: Donald Trump and the Future of the Republican Party,” published in early September. “He won New Hampshire in 2016 with a mere 35% of the vote. If in 2024 the GOP field will be a lot smaller, that will allow those who dislike Trump — and there are many such people — to concentrate their votes around one or two alternatives.”
That may be the key to politics in 2024.
David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
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