NEW YORK — As Donald Trump considers another White House run, polls show he’s the most popular figure in the Republican Party. But it wasn’t always that way.
Competing at one point against a dozen rivals for the presidential nomination in 2016, Trump won only about one-third of the vote in key early states. He even lost in Iowa, which kicks off the nomination process.
But he prevailed because those in the party who opposed his brand of politics were never able to coalesce around a single rival. That same dynamic could repeat itself as Trump mulls a new bid for the presidency as soon as this summer.
With a growing list of candidates gearing up to run, Trump could hold a commanding position in a fractured, multi-candidate primary.
“I fear it could end up the same way as 2016, which basically was everyone thought everyone else should get out,” said Republican strategist Mike DuHaime, who advised former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s campaign that year. “I think every major candidate realized that he or she would have a better shot against Trump one-on-one. But of course each person thought he or she should be the one to get that shot and nobody got out of the way. … And then it was too late.”
A growing list of potential rivals are taking increasingly brazen steps, delivering high-profile speeches, running ads, courting donors and making repeat visits to early voting states.
That group now includes upward of a dozen could-be-candidates, including Trump’s former vice president, Mike Pence; his former secretary of state, Mike Pompeo; and Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Rick Scott of Florida and Tim Scott of South Carolina. All could run on the former president’s policies.
In the anti-Trump lane, politicians such as Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan are raising their profiles.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is increasingly seen as Trump’s heir apparent, even by Trump’s most loyal supporters, and viewed by Trump allies as his most formidable potential challenger.
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and others have said they will not challenge Trump if he does go forward. But others, including Christie, seem to be gunning for the fight, even if they seem to be long shots.
“I’m definitely giving it serious thought. I’m not gonna make any decision probably until the end of the year,” Christie said in a recent interview. He has urged the party to move on from Trump and his ongoing obsession with the 2020 election.
Pompeo, who has had a busy travel schedule and plans to return to Iowa this summer, said in a recent interview that he has been spending time reading and listening to President Ronald Reagan’s speeches as he prepares for a possible run.
“We’re getting ready to stay in the fight,” he said last month as he courted evangelical Christians at a gathering in Nashville, Tennessee.
Pompeo sketched out a possible approach in much the same mold as Trump.
“He was a disruptor that was most necessary in 2016, there’s no doubt about that,” Pompeo said. And now the task is to take those set of understandings, those set of principles, and defend them and build upon them. And it’s gonna take a lot of work to do that, leaders of real fortitude and character to do that.”
Mick Mulvaney, a former South Carolina congressman who served as Trump’s acting White House chief of staff, said the moves suggested potential candidates “might see an opening where none existed two months ago.”
“Trump fatigue might be a real thing,” he said, with voters asking themselves whether, if they vote for another candidate, they “can get the same policies without all the baggage.”
Trump continues to move forward with his own events.
Last Friday night, he campaigned in Las Vegas alongside Adam Laxalt, his pick for Nevada Senate. And on Saturday night, he rallied in Anchorage, Alaska, to campaign with Kelly Tshibaka, whom he has endorsed in her race against Sen. Lisa Murkowski, and others, including former Gov. Sarah Palin, now running for Congress.