NEW YORK – Chris Christie, one of the only 2016 presidential candidates to seriously consider taking on Donald Trump again, says he and his fellow Republican rivals made a strategic error in that race.
Instead of going after Trump directly, Christie said, each hoped to winnow the GOP field before taking on the combative outsider.
“None of us ever got there,” the former New Jersey governor said last week. “It was over quick.”
More than seven years later, Republicans are still trying to figure out how to run against Trump, a calculation that’s only become more complicated with an indictment of the former president by a Manhattan grand jury.
Trump’s unrestrained and norm-busting style carried him from reality TV to the White House, transforming the Republican Party in his image along the way. But his style has befuddled those who try to compete against him, especially now as they seek to win over some of his supporters rather than draw their ire.
Some in 2016 tried to ignore Trump, like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who treated the celebrity businessman like a sideshow. Some tried to figuratively wrestle with him in the mud, like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who traded insults with Trump by mocking his hair and the size of his hands.
Neither approach worked.
“I think most politicians are not used to playing the game in such a pugilistic fashion as Trump and not as good at it,” said Jason Roe, a Michigan-based Republican political strategist.
As the 2024 field takes shape, candidates and potential contenders are struggling with how to make the case that the party needs to move on from Trump without alienating his influential “Make America Great Again” loyalists.
Trump is still considered the GOP front-runner despite facing a criminal indictment, being the subject of several other investigations, spreading false claims about his 2020 election defeat and inciting the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, among other things.
Most of Trump’s rivals or those who are eyeing a 2024 campaign have largely avoided talking about those scandals, instead opting for more shrouded criticism. Even with Trump becoming the first former president to be charged with a crime, most of his GOP rivals were quick to echo Trump’s complaint that the case is politically motivated.
Few, however, addressed the allegations related to Trump’s role in payments made during his 2016 presidential campaign to silence claims of extramarital sexual encounters. Trump has denied the allegations and proclaimed his innocence.
One notable exception is former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who has been critical of Trump in recent months and announced in an interview on ABC’s “This Week” that he's running for president. Hutchinson said Trump should drop out and focus on his legal troubles, calling them “too much of a sideshow and a distraction.”
Hutchinson, who considers himself part of the evangelical community that makes up a key bloc of the Republican electorate, said all of the serious investigations Trump is facing “should give Americans pause.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is widely expected to announce a campaign and is seen as Trump’s top rival, accused prosecutors of stretching the law to target an opponent. But his remarks came a week after DeSantis took a shot at the tawdry circumstances underlying the case when asked to comment on it.
“I don’t know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair,” DeSantis said.
In an interview with Piers Morgan that aired a few days later, DeSantis lobbed a few subdued critiques about Trump's leadership style but tried to brush off Trump's repeated insults.
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who launched her campaign in February, and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is considering a presidential run, both avoided criticizing Trump by name in speeches last month at a conservative gathering and instead noted how the GOP had lost so many elections in recent years.
Haley told the crowd, “If you’re tired of losing, then put your trust in a new generation,” a remark seen as a jab at the 76-year-old Trump. Pompeo said Republicans cannot follow “celebrity leaders with their own brand of identity politics, those with fragile egos who refuse to acknowledge reality.”
Those tactics are what Roe said might be the best strategy to run against Trump — mocking his electoral performance rather than getting into a slugfest.
Roe, speaking shortly before news of Trump's indictment broke, said the case and Trump's reaction to it had already “sucked up all the oxygen."
“I don’t think it pays off getting into a fight with him now," he said.
That seems to be the calculus for Trump's former vice president, Mike Pence. He has mostly taken a softer approach with Trump despite having to flee to safety as Trump's supporters stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 and some in the crowd chanted, “Hang Mike Pence!”
Pence, who is now considering his own presidential campaign, has made limited criticism of Trump and reserved his sharpest comments for an untelevised speech in Washington to politicians and journalists.
Speaking last month at the white-tie Gridiron Dinner, Pence said Trump was “wrong” on Jan. 6 and his “reckless words endangered my family and everyone at the Capitol.”
But on Thursday and Friday, after news of Trump's indictment broke, Pence repeatedly called the case an outrage.
If there's one lesson from 2016, it's that Trump's Republican rivals can “get so preoccupied with trying to trade blows him that they don’t realize that they’re taking mortal punches,” Roe said. "And he gets stronger in that environment.”
No one learned that lesson quite like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
Cruz initially was friendly with Trump as they competed for the party's nomination in 2016 and Cruz even praised the New Yorker.
But as the campaign wore on, the relationship soured and the two traded insults. Trump disparaged the appearance of Cruz’s wife and bizarrely suggested that Cruz's father may have been involved in President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
Cruz, asked last week what lessons he learned from taking on Trump, had a pithy response.
“Get more votes than your opponent,” he said with a smirk.
Associated Press writer Stephen Groves in Washington contributed to this report.