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Are Trump’s Rivals Running for President — or Running in Place?

Trump’s team is changing the rules to make it harder for second-place finishers to collect delegates.

Former President Donald Trump tosses hats to supporters as he arrives for a "Farmers for Trump" campaign event at the MidAmerica Center on July 7, 2023, in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

Donald Trump stepped on the stage in Des Moines, Iowa on Friday night to the ubiquitous GOP rally song “Only in America” just as the lines “one could end up going to prison, one just might be president” were blaring over the loudspeakers. Everyone in that room has probably heard the song a thousand times, Trump included, but never have the words been more relevant.

If the Trump campaign is mad at Gov. Kim Reynolds they shouldn’t be. The song was played for every candidate who spoke. It’s just that those particular lyrics only apply to one of them.

The crowd cheered lustily for the former president and current frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, as they always do. It’s doubtful any of them even heard those lyrics, and if they did they no doubt saw it as more evidence of the massive conspiracy against Trump. We know this because earlier in the evening one lone Republican candidate tried to tell them the truth:

Reporters inside the room said the booing of former Texas congressman Will Hurd was much louder and more energetic. One man reportedly yelled, “Go home you son of a bitch!”

Hurd said “the truth is hard,” but these people don’t think so. Here’s a typical Trump voter from the next day at Trump’s rally in Erie, Pennsylvania:

The scene of those surreal moments with Trump and Hurd was the Iowa Republican Party’s Lincoln Day dinner on Friday night. It’s where a whole gaggle of candidates appeared to make their pitch to “Real Americans.” Trump, for his part, was fairly low-key, mostly sticking to his prepared speech and staying under the allowed 10 minutes. It was low-energy enough to even be noticed by some in the crowd.

You can understand why. All week long the press had been on indictment watch, waiting for news about the assumed impending charges against Trump in the January 6 investigation but instead, a superseding indictment had been brought against Trump and another conspirator in the Mar-a-Lago stolen documents case. As of now, Trump is facing 40 federal felony charges in the Mar-a-Lago stolen documents case and 32 state felony charges in New York in the Stormy Daniels hush money case. It’s enough to make any criminal defendant feel a little bit despondent.

And anyway, Trump hates appearing in venues with other candidates. He feels it lowers him to have to compete head-to-head with people he considers his inferiors. Although he’s qualified for the upcoming first debate in Iowa next month he’s said he doesn’t think he’ll bother. I’m not sure why. The crowds loved it back in 2016 when he talked about his penis size and crudely demeaned and insulted his rivals and the moderators.

A spat with Iowa’s popular GOP governor over her refusal to endorse Trump — or anyone — in the primary and the not-so-paranoid suspicion that she favors Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis may have affected some inside players in the Iowa Republican Party, at least one of whom switched his allegiance to DeSantis. It’s all inside baseball. The GOP base still loves Trump. He’s polling 30 points ahead of DeSantis with everyone else in the crowded field still trying to get a foothold. When Trump said, “There’s only one candidate — and you know who that candidate is — to get the job done,” the crowd went wild.

It is possible that there has been a slight shift in the national polling in light of all his felony indictments.

According to a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist National Poll, only 13% of Republicans believe Trump did something illegal, a number unchanged since the last poll, but they report that “Republicans who say Trump has done nothing wrong dropped 9 points (50% to 41%) since our June poll.” And he’s dropped six points, from 64% to only 58%, on the question of who Republican voters say they are more likely to back if he stays in the race. Clearly, quite a few Republicans who believe he did something wrong are more than happy to vote for him anyway. Such is the MAGA phenomenon. You can see why the rest of the GOP field is stuck in low numbers. There is no shaking him loose from the top spot.

So the Republican primary looks like it’s going to be a re-run of 2016 at this point. And that’s pathetic since back then nobody really knew what to make of Trump. You’d think they would have figured out a different strategy by now. This crop of candidates each has their own reasons for trying it, some more understandable than others, and they probably all figure that they might be the last man (or Nikki Haley) standing in case Trump drops out.

DeSantis clearly thought he was presidential timbre and could go one-on-one with Trump. He has learned otherwise. The spectacle of his floundering campaign is downright pitiful these days and it’s illustrated by the fact that he no longer seems to be running against Trump, the frontrunner, and is instead in a race for second place with South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, a media darling who is reportedly starting to get some attention from donors, especially those who are feeling disenchanted with the anti-woke governor as he’s rolled out his very expensive and ineffectual campaign. And former vice president Mike Pence persists in believing he has a constituency as does former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. Previously unknown gadfly Vivek Ramaswamy is having his 15 minutes and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is eagerly invited on every cable news show to deliver some zingers against Trump each week.

A few others are pretending to run as well but the strategy is the same as 2016: Don’t alienate the Trump vote, challenge the other candidates so they will drop out and you will be Trump’s heir apparent when he flames out. It didn’t work then and it’s highly unlikely it will work now, especially since Trump’s minions are changing the rules all over the country to make it harder for second-place finishers to collect delegates.

The Washington Post reports that in California this past weekend Trump operatives finagled a change to the delegate rules giving him a much better chance at securing all of the state’s 169 delegates. Similar changes have been engineered in other states after Trump’s henchmen set about working the state parties some time back. Whether it’s pushing for winner-take-all or caucuses over primaries or any number of other strategies, his operation has fully wired the primaries to Trump’s advantage.

Events like that Lincoln dinner, and probably the debates as well, are really just political pageants designed to give the impression that there is a contested primary in the Republican Party. There’s a lot of money to go around to line the pockets of media companies and Republican operatives for months, so why not? But unless something catastrophic happens to Trump (and criminal indictments obviously don’t count) all indications are that he’s going to be the nominee. The rest of these people are just running in place.

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