Donald Trump seems inevitable, but many Republicans embrace the campaign debate without him


ATLANTA (AP) – Donald Trump’s decision to skip First Republican debate It may hurt TV ratings and put more pressure on it The eight contestants who will be on stage. But many governors said they were keen to see their options without the former president dominating the conversation.

“People are too focused on the circus,” said Melissa Watford, a 53-year-old Republican from suburban Atlanta. “It’s just a distraction. A distraction, a distraction, a distraction.”

Watford’s husband, Jack, said he would still consider supporting Trump if he won the nomination, but called the former president “click bait” and expressed relief at stepping off the stage on Wednesday in Milwaukee.

“When he’s out of the picture, you can really hear the other candidates, really hear them,” said the 61-year-old.

The Watfords represent a notable share of Republican primary voters who, regardless of their feelings about Trump, want the party to wrestle with his identity and choices rather than hand the former president a third consecutive nomination without a fight. However, it is difficult to define the group precisely Opinion polls of the Republican Party and Trump’s rivals I think it’s big enough to outrun Trump’s base.

And it extends far beyond the small but loud Never Trump faction. Instead, there is an expansive center in the party open to new options — but that center has supported Trump in the past, is at least somewhat sympathetic to the legal risks he faces, and would almost certainly vote for him again in the general election if he became the nominee. .

“I am very disturbed by the bigger picture, what Joe Biden and his running of the country are doing,” said Terri Lathan, the former Alabama GOP chairwoman who once supported Trump but now backs Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for president. “Republican politics and the platform should be at the top of the food chain here.”

However, Lathan conceded that “there is no bigger figure than President Trump… There are a great number of people who would be willing to do it again.”

What a post-Trump party might look like was on display last weekend at conservative radio host Erik Erickson’s annual political conference, “The Rally,” which was held in the Republican-leaning Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta, a Democratic stronghold. Hundreds of activists, activists, and ordinary conservatives attended and tested their theories of a post-Trump republic.

The dynamic in “The Rally” highlighted the challenge Trump’s rivals faced Wednesday night. None of them has yet gained enough support to avoid splitting the Republican base.

Robert Quayle, a 33-year-old Republican from Georgia, recounted how he watched friends drawn to Trump’s populism in the 2016 campaign because of their disillusionment with the unequal economy and entrenched political class. “He’s spoken to them, and there’s still a deep loyalty there,” Coyle said, before adding that the former president’s latest campaign appears more self-interested.

“There’s a lot of optimism among the other candidates” about conservatism and the country as a whole, he said, “and that’s something that’s missing” under Trump’s control.

Erickson conducted one-on-one interviews with DeSantis, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, technology entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, and former Vice President Mike Pence.

All planned to appear on stage in Milwaukee.

Erickson did not invite Trump to Atlanta. He dismisses Trump’s false statements about the 2020 election and constantly urges his listeners to look ahead. And there were no “Make America Great Again” hats strewn across the audience. Ericsson did not ask the candidates about the former president.

“We know what they will say,” he added.

However, the party appears ready to align with Trump for the third time, and is unsure how to proceed in a different direction. The broader takeaway from those present at the Ericsson event was the candidates’ willingness to take their ideas beyond the framework imposed by Trump.

“These candidates are either labeled or ignored in the media, especially television,” said Raz Shafer, 37, of Stephenville, Texas. “It’s refreshing to hear a different, deeper perspective in their voices.”

Schafer said he deeply admires DeSantis, Haley, and Christie. He said DeSantis crushed accounts that he was “breaking apart”. He said Haley showed depth in domestic and foreign policy as a former governor and ambassador. He said Christie went beyond the “usual soundbites” of criticizing Trump.

Lorelei Eddy, 58, of Fayetteville, Ga., said the New Jersey politician dispelled her notions that he was “well, more on the liberal side than the conservative.” Instead, with extended mic time, Christie explained how he battled top lawmakers and local officials in deeply Democratic New Jersey while ultimately compromising with them for political victories.

Once Christie left the stage and met the media outside, he eagerly answered questions about Trump, calling the former president a “coward” for skipping Milwaukee and musing that Trump was “afraid” of a “jail cell.”

Criticizing Trump doesn’t necessarily bother Edie, as long as she hears more from the alternatives. She said she never voted for Trump in the primary or general election. “He never lived up to my values ​​as a conservative,” she said, insisting that it was possible to find a real conservative who could “get things done” and “not be divisive.”

Melissa Watford said Ramaswamy stood out because he “sounded a lot like Trump, like an outsider, but without all the heft”. She was not ready to choose a candidate.

Of course, when voters talk about their choices, they provide reminders of how deep the former president’s footprint was and how the differences among Trump’s rivals can make it difficult for any of them to muster a majority or even a pluralistic coalition to challenge him.

For example, Eddie praised Scott, a South Carolina senator and the nationally prominent black Republican, as “very convincing,” but wondered “whether he could win yet.”

Schaeffer called Pence “a man of character” who “will be remembered fondly by history” for rejecting Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Schaeffer, however, did not include him in his higher echelon. Of Pence, Eddy said, “Most people aren’t looking for that veteran politician.”

Thomas Eddy, who came to Ericsson’s meeting with his wife, said he realizes most voters will never have the kind of broad and close view of candidates he has recently. He said he expected Wednesday’s debate, even without Trump, to include the kinds of Trump-focused questions Christie so willingly asked in Atlanta.

“It’s frustrating how this platform works,” he said. “There must be a better way.”

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