Several Republican White House hopefuls are set to greet a conservative conference with hopes of making up ground against Donald Trump. But the former president's shadow may be especially difficult to escape in the city where he was most recently indicted.
Trump will not speak at The Gathering, an Atlanta event by syndicated radio host Erick Erickson taking place Friday and Saturday about 10 miles from the jail where Trump has to surrender before next Friday on a racketeering indictment related to the 2020 election. Six of his 2024 rivals are scheduled for onstage interviews with Erickson, an influential conservative who has been critical of Trump.
The timing sets up one more example of the struggle that Trump's GOP opponents face. He dominates the primary polls and media attention, especially on cable news and talk radio, despite criminal indictments for alleged actions before, during and after his presidency. Those four indictments seem to have hardened Trump's support among core GOP voters, even as a majority of people in the United States disapprove of him. Many party loyalists who say they are open to alternatives do not want to hear criticisms of Trump.
"It's hard for anybody to get any oxygen in the room with President Trump," said Terry Lathan, a former Alabama Republican Party chairwoman who has previously backed Trump but now supports Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for the 2024 nomination.
"Donald Trump can be exhausting," Lathan said. "But people will walk on broken glass to vote for the guy."
Erickson noted in his welcoming on Friday morning that "the former president will not be here" and that the event was meant to allow discussions that do not involve Trump and his drama.
"This is our time to come together and hear from people whey they're running for office, why should we vote for you ... what's your vision," Erickson said.
DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley are set Friday to appear in the Atlanta neighborhood of Buckhead, a Republican-leaning enclave in an otherwise Democratic-dominated city. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy will speak Saturday.
Each candidate will join Erickson for a question-and-answer session, with the moderator promising a focus on issues, including artificial intelligence, Christian nationalism in America, and dealing with China as a global U.S. rival.
Erickson's chosen theme for the conference — "Forward: Which Way" — nods at how he wants to define the moment for Republicans.
Of the candidates appearing with Erickson, only Christie has consistently criticized Trump for alleged acts contained in the indictments. The rest typically echo in some fashion Trump's claims of a "witch hunt," while avoiding details of the cases.
Addressing reporters in the early primary state of New Hampshire, DeSantis said he had not "had a chance to read" the Georgia indictment, a sweeping 98-page case in which District Attorney Fani Willis invoked state racketeering laws used to prosecute organized criminal networks. DeSantis attacked Atlanta itself and, implicitly, the Black prosecutor whom Trump has labeled as "racist."
"I will tell you," DeSantis said, "Atlanta has huge problems with crime right now, and there has been an approach to crime which has been less than exacting."
He offered no supporting evidence for that deflection, which was reminiscent of Trump lashing out at civil rights icon John Lewis in 2017. The late Atlanta congressman had declared Trump was "not a legitimate president" and refused to attend his inauguration. Trump answered that Lewis' district, which still includes downtown Atlanta and Buckhead, was "falling apart (and) crime infested."
Leading Republicans say GOP candidates have few practical options other than to campaign on Trump's terms — or at least sidestep him whenever possible.
Whit Ayres, a national pollster based in Virginia, handicapped the GOP electorate as 10% to 15% "Never Trumpers" — those who might gravitate to Christie for his attacks on Trump — and 35% or so "die-hard MAGA Trump supporters," referring to Trump's "Make America Great Again" slogan.
The rest, half or a slim majority of the party, "have doubts about his electability" in a general election but are still "reliable Republicans who voted for him twice," Ayres said. Trump's rivals cannot win over that remaining faction by "going after him frontally," the pollster argued.
As a Republican, "you can't call him unfit for office," Ayres said. "That's basically requiring half the party to admit they screwed up and put someone unfit for office into the Oval Office. That's just a psychological step too far for most people."
Erickson this week tacitly acknowledged the dynamics. He spent significant time on his radio show dissecting Trump's legal peril, even pushing back, albeit gingerly, on some conservatives' reflexive defense of the former president.
"Trump supporters believe the 2020 election was stolen from him. The district attorney in Georgia says actually it was Donald Trump who was trying to steal the election," Erickson said. "Whether you believe it or not, whether you believe it's political or not, that's what the indictment is about."
Perhaps the best Trump's rivals can do — in Atlanta, the first primary debate next week and going forward — is maintain a foothold in the quiet hopes that one of the pending trials takes place and damages the former president before he secures another GOP nomination.
"This race may appear frozen," Ayres said. "The surface of the ocean looks calm, but there are all kinds of currents underneath that could disrupt the surface."
Yet a former Trump ally such as Lathan demonstrates the challenge for his opponents.
She said she is alarmed by the Florida indictment on allegations that Trump wrongly kept classified material at his Mar-a-Lago residence. But the other cases, she added, are evidence of "Democrats and the Biden administration" targeting him.
And if Trump wins the nomination, she said: "I'm there. Game on."
Trump has "taken more arrows than anyone who has ever held that office," Lathan argued. "There are a lot of Republicans who will break back to him because of this. I mean, do all these 'get Trump' people not realize they're just making him stronger?"
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