You have to beat the king to be the king, according to an adage.
Donald Trump’s political rivals are taking that to heart as they plot their strategies to split Mr. Trump from his adoring primary supporters and capture the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie recently took a whack at Mr. Trump in New Hampshire, the state that gave Mr. Trump his first victory in the 2016 primary contests.
“Donald Trump is a TV star. Nothing more, nothing less,” Mr. Christie said at a town hall at New England College. “He failed us as a president on the promises that he made to us. And let me suggest to you that if we put it back to the White House, the reruns will be worse than the original show.”
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican who hasn’t ruled out a run for president next year, also puts it bluntly: “Donald Trump is a loser.
“He has not just lost once. He lost us in our House seats in 2018. He lost everything in ’20,” Mr. Sununu said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “We should have 54 U.S. senators right now, and we don’t because of his message.”
The former president traveled to Manchester, New Hampshire, on Thursday for a campaign event and highlighted for reporters an Emerson College poll that showed him ahead of his nearest Republican rival by 46 percentage points.
Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung shrugged off the attacks from Mr. Sununu and others.
“President Trump is crushing Sununu in his home state by over 36 points and looks forward to his trip to Manchester … where he will be greeted by thousands of MAGA patriots and supporters,” Mr. Cheung said.
Mr. Trump sneaked up on the party in many ways in 2016 when his rivals and much of the media treated his campaign as a sideshow until he started winning primaries and claimed the nomination.
Gaffes that would have drummed other candidates out of the race seemed to embolden Mr. Trump and cemented his bond with voters who saw him and the chaos surrounding him as the antidote to Washington.
“Everybody thought he would put his foot in his mouth and self-destruct, and that didn’t happen,” said William Palatucci, a member of the Republican National Committee from New Jersey and a Christie ally. “And it is unlikely to happen this time unless other candidates confront him — both in terms of his antics and policy failures from the first term.”
Mr. Trump won’t be sneaking up on anyone this time.
His four years as president and his continued presence on the political stage have left him the undisputed king of Republican Party politics. Polling regularly puts him at around 50% support among Republican primary voters.
That means Mr. Trump’s rivals must topple him before they battle among themselves.
“2016 was a debacle for the field of non-Trump candidates because they never understood his appeal, never landed a punch on him that mattered to primary voters and refused to get out of the race in time to take him one-on-one,” said Kevin Sheridan, a Republican Party strategist.
The years since 2016 have given Mr. Trump a record to run on and a history of electoral losses that his opponents can target. The events of Jan. 6, 2021, and mounting legal woes have also become ammunition for some rivals.
Mr. Sununu has been particularly pointed by saying Mr. Trump would be “a four-time loser in 2024.”
“We need candidates that can win,” Mr. Sununu said.
Early polls suggest that Mr. Trump is pulling away from the announced candidates in the field despite their attacks. At a Republican Party dinner in Florida last week, Mr. Trump cited favorable surveys, including one by Clarity Campaign Labs that showed him leading Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis by 45 percentage points. Mr. DeSantis has not announced his candidacy.
“The polls show clearly that the people are with us in this fight,” Mr. Trump said. “In last week’s Morning Consult poll, I led the field by 33 points.”
Other Republicans have tried to thread the needle between dinging Mr. Trump without angering his loyal support base. It is a delicate balancing act.
“I am in this race to take the America First agenda further than Donald Trump ever did because I will do it based on first principles and moral authority — not based on vengeance and grievance,” Vivek Ramaswamy, a Republican candidate and multimillionaire entrepreneur, said during a recent swing through Iowa.
Candidates are also trying to calibrate their attacks to the party’s mood. Mr. Christie went after Mr. Trump completely; others jabbed at particular pronouncements.
At his campaign launch Wednesday, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson took a thinly veiled shot at Mr. Trump by saying there “are a few misguided leaders who say we should defund the FBI.”
“We should not defund the FBI, but we do need serious reform to refocus the core functions of our federal law enforcement,” he said.
Mr. Sheridan said he expects rivals to sharpen their focus on Mr. Trump.
“When we start hearing the candidates say loudly and clearly Trump gave us [Dr. Anthony] Fauci, you’ll know it’s really on,” said Mr. Sheridan, referring to the former federal health official and pandemic adviser loathed by conservatives.
Mr. Palatucci said the 2024 nomination race already has a “very different” feel.
“The candidates already in the race and those making noise about getting in are criticizing the former president in some shape or form,” he said. “A few still won’t name him directly, but everybody knows who they are talking about.”
• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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