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Trump hovers, but the number of his likely rivals keeps growing

The 2024 election will mark my ninth presidential contest as a Republican commentator. The party to which I've belonged has changed a lot since the first time I voted (a bit earlier, in 1974), but, like California after one of its many earthquakes, it settles. The party's upheavals abate, and folks just deal with the walls and roads that have cracked or crumbled.

About 24 years ago, I described a three-part GOP: the party of faith, the party of wealth, and the party of patriotism driven by strong support for free enterprise, religious liberty and a pro-life agenda, and national security.

That's still the case, of course, but two huge changes have rocked the party since. First is the emergence of the national security challenge posed by a hard-line Chinese Communist Party, led by the dictator President Xi Jinping.

Every Republican who wants to win in 2024 will have to present a "dragon in the air" counterpart to Hal Riney's pivotal 1984 Reagan-Bush "bear in the woods" ad about the Soviet Union. China is the new U.S.S.R. Highlighting that reality and the national security spending it requires will bottom every GOP candidacy.

The second change, of course, is the rise of Donald Trump. His populist appeal and personal following have remade a significant portion of the GOP and brought untold numbers of people into the party. He made the party more populist and vastly reorganized its thinking about trade and foreign policy.

If I were to describe the shape of the coming GOP field, the triptych might best be described now as, borrowing from President Joe Biden, "ultra MAGA," MAGA light, and everybody else.

Will Trump run? That seems almost inevitable based on what he has said privately and publicly, as well as polls that appear to guarantee him a formidable head start. But it will be at least a question mark until he either announces — or turns up at the first Republican National Committee-sponsored debate in 2023.

Until then, the scramble is on. The non-Trump Republican front-runner is clearly Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, stretching his appeal across all three groups. Others in that category include Trump's former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, and Florida Sen. Rick Scott.

Among the MAGA light — candidates whose embrace of (or quarrels with) Trump are passing affairs — are Virginia's formidable new governor, Glenn Youngkin, former U.N. Ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey. Their chances turn on these questions: is there sufficient demand for a different electioneering and governing aesthetic from Trump's, one far less combustible and combative? Might the country want a candidate who collects the remnants of George W. Bush's compassionate conservatism and the suburban moms' demanding control of their kids' education?

Both were hallmarks of Haley's time in Columbia, at the heart of Youngkin's perfect pitch in 2021, and make up an element of Ducey's appeal in Arizona through two terms as governor. Ducey's record of flat taxes, charter schools, and more cops along the border fits squarely in the party's normal lane for a governor from the West; however, Ducey might be forcibly drafted by one of the formerly powerful but now sidelined business advocacy associations inside the Beltway that need to rebuild burnt bridges to the GOP. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Sen. Ted Cruz might also claim that space and stand as Ronald Reagan's heir. But Texas isn't the West so much as it's own world, and Reagan's sunny optimism is more Ducey than anyone else on the left side of the Rockies.

In the "everybody else" column are those Republicans who yearn for a party concerned with an originalist judiciary, free enterprise, and peace through strength, but not the brawling style of 45. Former Vice President Mike Pence, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie are hoping that some semblance of the vestigial establishment GOP will awaken and rise again. It is an unlikely dream but not impossible. The former veep's appearance on behalf of Gov. Brian Kemp in the Georgia gubernatorial primary widened a divide from Trump that Hogan and Christie crossed long ago.

It could be quite a field. If so, the party will need an even bigger stage than at the beginning of 2016 campaign. A fascinating moment for Republican politics approaches — and a challenging one for a GOP deciding whether it wants another four-year rumble with the left or to govern for eight years to come.

Hugh Hewitt hosts a nationally syndicated radio show on the Salem Network


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