WEST DES MOINES, Iowa – In the past week alone, Nikki Haley regaled activists in Iowa, Mike Pence courted donors in California and Donald Trump returned to the rally stage, teasing a third campaign for the White House.
The midterms are more than a year away, and there are 1,225 days until the next presidential election. But Republicans eyeing a White House run are wasting no time in jockeying for a strong position in what could emerge as an extremely crowded field of contenders.
The politicking will only intensify in the coming weeks, particularly in Iowa, home to the nation's leadoff presidential caucuses and a state where conservative evangelicals play a significant role in steering the direction of the GOP. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas is slated to visit on Tuesday, and others, including Pence, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are expected to appear in July.
The flurry of activity is a sign that there is no clear frontrunner to lead the GOP if Trump opts against a 2024 campaign.
“It definitely feels early, but it doesn’t feel like it's a bad idea based on the situation," said Mike DuHaime, a longtime Republican strategist. “The party has changed, the voters are changing and I think the process has changed. And I think many of the candidates have realized that.”
For now, a central question in Republican politics is whether Trump, who continues to advance lies about his loss last year to Joe Biden, will run again. The former president has said he will make a decision after next year's midterms.
In the meantime, he faces mounting legal vulnerabilities, including the potential that prosecutors in Manhattan may file criminal charges against his company as soon as this week. Trump is also under investigation by a district attorney in Georgia for attempting to pressure elections officials to change results in his favor.
Still, Trump, who left office in January under the cloud of impeachment for inciting a riot at the U.S. Capitol, is flirting with a political future. Returning to the rally stage last weekend for the first time as a private citizen, Trump looked every bit the candidate as an enthusiastic crowd of thousands in Ohio chanted, “Four more years!”
“We won the election twice," he said. "And it’s possible we’ll have to win it a third time."
The specter of Trump has been especially challenging for Republicans like Pence. As a conservative evangelical Christian who was Trump's unflinchingly loyal vice president, Pence would seem appealing to many of the party's activists. But his decision to follow the constitutional process and certify Biden's win angered many in the GOP.
Though he still heaps praise on Trump's accomplishments, Pence has worked more recently to forge his own identity, splitting with his former boss in particular over the severity of the deadly Jan. 6 riot, which forced him into hiding but which many Republicans have sought to minimize.
That balancing act came into sharp relief Thursday as Pence delivered a speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in front of a sold-out crowd of more than 800 people during a swing through California that included meetings with donors and a headline speech at a Republican National Committee dinner.
After being booed and jeered the week before at a conservative conference in Florida, Pence appeared to have a newfound sense of swagger as he delivered his strongest rebuttal to date of Trump’s continued insistence that he could have unilaterally overturned the results of the last election. Many of Trump's supporters continue to blame Pence for Trump's loss, even though he had no power to overturn the results.
“The truth is, there’s almost no idea more un-American than the notion that any one person could choose the American president,” Pence said, adding that he would “always be proud that we did our part, on that tragic day, to reconvene the Congress and fulfill our duty under the Constitution and the laws of the United States.”
It's been a similar tightrope act for Haley, Trump's former ambassador to the United Nations and a former governor of South Carolina, who sharply criticized Trump after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot but has since largely avoided the subject.
At a Thursday dinner during a three-day swing across Iowa, Haley presented herself to about 500 Republican activists as a next-generation conservative figure.
Like Pence, Haley spent much of her speech praising Trump's time in office and sharing anecdotes of her work with him that lit chuckles throughout the hall, while ignoring the deadly siege at the Capitol as well as Trump’s monthslong campaign to cast doubt on the outcome of the 2020 election, even though there is no evidence of the widespread fraud he alleges.
“I saw firsthand as ambassador to the United Nations that Donald Trump put America first, sometimes in the most interesting of ways,” she said.
Haley was also the guest on a popular conservative radio talk show Friday and headlined fundraisers for statehouse and county leaders, including Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds.
“There are a lot of reasons why I love Iowa,” she said. “But maybe the biggest reason is that Iowa loves to elect badass Republican women.”
The activity is not surprising to activists in the states that will ultimately have first say in picking their party's candidates.
“It takes a while to court states like New Hampshire and Iowa," said Greg Moore, the New Hampshire state director of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political advocacy group founded by the Koch brothers. “And it’s fine and dandy if you’re President Trump and you have a prebuilt infrastructure in the state and just have to turn the key. But for everyone else, you have to build that.”
So far, polls and interviews suggest voters are a long way from picking favorites, though Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is frequently mentioned as a possible Trump successor. He is notably one of the few leading Republicans who has yet to visit Iowa this year.
At last week's GOP event in California, retiree Bob Egbert, 75, praised Trump but doubted a third run would be good for the party. Egbert likes what he sees in DeSantis and considered Pence’s low-key personality as a liability with voters.
“I think he would be a nice, bland candidate,” said Egbert, a Republican. “I don’t think that’s what we need.”
Former California Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, predicted a “spirited contest” in 2024, but declined to identify a favorite among the emerging candidates.
As for Trump?
“It is, after all ... his decision. It’s a decision he shares with his family,” Wilson said. “He is much admired. It’s obvious from what has occurred he is much feared and demonized by this (Biden) administration.”
Colvin reported from Wellington, Ohio. Associated Press writer Michael R. Blood contributed to this report from Simi Valley, California.