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Trump dominates GOP primary as challengers crash into the rules of political gravity

Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN

(CNN) — Republican presidential candidates are diving back into campaigning with time running out to show they can answer the critical question of the 2024 primary race — whether they have a chance of taking down Donald Trump.

The closing days before voting starts in Iowa on January 15 are also underscoring Trump’s quintessential strength as the dominant figure in the GOP. The former president has long crushed the rules of campaigning and decorum and stirs scandal and outrage that would fell any normal candidate. An attempt to overturn American democracy in 2020 to stay in power after losing an election, racially questionable social media posts and comments and recent rhetoric reminiscent of Nazi propaganda has done little to dim his appeal to grassroots primary voters.

But the contest has reached the point where any comment, incident or perceived flub by a candidate can distract from their closing argument and bring intense national scrutiny that can be used by their opponents to damaging effect.

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley confronted this reality as soon as she stepped back onto the trail after the Christmas break Wednesday night, as she walked into a controversy over slavery that reignited one of the most contentious chapters of her record.

Haley, who would prefer headlines to be about her surge in New Hampshire that could give her a platform to compete directly with Trump, gave an equivocating answer when an attendee asked her in a town hall event what caused the Civil War – and she didn’t even mention the slavery, the historic curse that tore the nation apart. It shouldn’t have been that difficult to bat that question away, but Haley gave a waffling answer that touched on states’ rights and the freedom of individuals not to be dictated to by governments.

“Don’t come with an easy question,” Haley said in a town hall event in New Hampshire.

“I mean, I think the cause of the Civil War was basically how government was going to run. The freedoms and what people could and couldn’t do,” Haley said.

The questioner wasn’t satisfied with the answer, saying, “In the year 2023, it’s astonishing to me that you answer that question without mentioning the word ‘slavery.’”

On Thursday morning, Haley sought to clarify her comments and said, “Of course the Civil War was about slavery.”

“We know that that’s, that’s the easy part of it. What I was saying was, what does it mean to us today? What it means that today is about freedom. That’s what that was all about. It was about individual freedom. It was about economic freedom. It was about individual rights. Our goal is to make sure no, we never go back to the state of slavery,” Haley said in an interview with radio host Jack Heath.

Haley’s prolonged and non-committal remarks from Wednesday came across as an attempt to give the conservative audience of a Republican primary that has trekked a long way to the right the kind of answer it might prefer to hear. There was no immediate comment from her campaign. But Haley’s defenders are likely to remind voters that as governor she was instrumental in convincing lawmakers in South Carolina to lower the Confederate flag over the capital – an issue that was hugely sensitive in her home state given its painful history with race. Still, that move, after a mass shooting at a Black church in Charleston in 2015, followed years of her equivocating on the issue of the flag, a symbol critics see as glorifying slavery and defenders regard as resonant with the heritage of the South and honoring those who died in the Civil War.

The reemergence of the Civil War issue now threatens to distract from Haley’s political momentum at a critical moment in the campaign. And it could offer an opening for her rivals. The DeSantis War Room account on X, which backs the Florida governor, posted footage of her event with the word “Yikes.” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is seeking leverage against Haley in New Hampshire, has had his own complications over race in this campaign, including a controversy over his administration’s efforts to dictate how Black history should be taught in the state’s public schools.

Top Democrats, including President Joe Biden’s official campaign account, also piled on Haley, writing “It was about slavery,” showing how in the apparently unlikely event she emerges as the GOP nominee, the backlash over her remarks could play in the general election. Her critics will surely seize on footage of her answer on Wednesday to advance a persistent criticism that she tells each audience what it wants to hear and does not live up to her own self-described brand as a straight talker.

The sudden campaign storm caused by Haley’s New Hampshire remarks may not cause her immediate damage in a Republican primary among base voters who are likely to see it as fueled by liberals and media outlets they distrust. But anything that hurts her campaign could help Trump. And the issue could arise again when the race turns to the South Carolina primary in February that could represent a final showdown in the GOP nominating clash. And in New Hampshire, the controversy could hurt on the margins if Haley is seeking to attract independent and Democratic voters who want to oppose Trump from coming into her camp.

Haley and DeSantis are holding events Thursday in New Hampshire and Iowa — the states on which their long-shot campaigns for the GOP nomination initially rest.

The faraway GOP front-runner is, meanwhile, spending the holidays intensifying his unique and often bizarre 2024 bid. The former president, who faces 91 criminal charges across four cases, told his adversaries to “ROT IN HELL” in a bitter Christmas message as he wages a legal battle on multiple fronts that is inseparable from his White House bid.

On Wednesday, he celebrated the Michigan Supreme Court’s decision not to bar him from the ballot based on the Constitution’s curb on insurrectionists serving in office. A contrary decision from the Colorado Supreme Court to kick him off the ballot there is being appealed to the US Supreme Court by the state Republican Party, and Trump is expected to file his own appeal soon.

And in a cryptic sign of Trump’s autocratic intent, he reposted a word cloud on social media that shows that the word voters most associate with his potential second term is “revenge.”

Joe Biden, meanwhile, is in the US Virgin Islands, savoring a few moments of peace on a New Year’s vacation before a fateful year that will decide whether he joins the club of one-term presidents or claims political absolution with reelection. His hopes are clouded by low approval ratings, a sour national mood, concerns about his age and signs that his 2020 coalition is splintering. But Trump’s untamed extremism may be making his point for 2024 – that his predecessor is too dangerous to democracy to allow back in the Oval Office.

In a normal campaign, Haley would be peaking at just the right time, ahead of the Iowa caucuses and the first-in-the-nation GOP primary in New Hampshire a week later. A slow-boiling rise in polls and donor enthusiasm – based on solid debate performances and shrewd political positioning – has created momentum in the Granite State, where she has a case to be the most credible anti-Trump candidate. But with the former president dominating the GOP, there needs to be a major upset if the coming nominating contests do anything more than establish the runner-up to Trump.

A critical moment is approaching, however, for Haley’s strategy of only criticizing Trump obliquely as an agent of chaos rather than homing in on his greatest potential general election weakness — the four criminal trials looming over him and his assault on democracy with his false claims about the 2020 election. Haley has been loath to directly upbraid Trump to avoid alienating GOP primary voters among whom he remains hugely popular. And even if that tactic works for her in New Hampshire, she still would face a showdown a month later in her home state of South Carolina, where Trump is massively popular.

In the coming days, Haley plans to appear repeatedly with New Hampshire’s popular Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, who endorsed her and has long argued that his state will reshape the GOP primary race and begin Trump’s slow eclipse.

The chances that anyone could emerge as a strong challenger to the former president are diminished by the size of the GOP field. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has vowed to stay in the race, debuting a seven-figure ad buy in New Hampshire on Thursday in which he pushes back against those calling for him to drop out. And biotech tycoon Vivek Ramaswamy, who has furiously rejected reports that his team’s decision to pull advertising is a sign of a doomed campaign, said on Fox News Wednesday, “We’re going with this to the very end.”

DeSantis fights for political survival

During the Christmas and New Year holiday in 2022, DeSantis was still basking in a thumping reelection win in a disappointing midterm election year for Republicans that appeared to position him as a significant threat to Trump. But the Florida governor suffered through a chastening 2023, in which his sometimes awkward campaign trail persona and misfiring campaign and super PAC operations suggested that he was not ready for the intense scrutiny of national politics.

DeSantis is throwing all his efforts into Iowa in the next two-and-a-half weeks, knowing that a performance that defies plunging expectations could give him a new lease on life but that a poor showing could effectively end his campaign. In an interview with the conservative Newsmax network Wednesday, DeSantis made a pitch to critical evangelical voters in the Hawkeye State as he spoke about his faith and Iowa’s “basic decency.” He added: “There’s patriotism, people are God-fearing. That’s the backbone of America. The ingredients for a great comeback are there.”

DeSantis, who has already visited all of Iowa’s 99 counties, will begin a statewide blitz on Thursday with events in Ankeny and Marion, then appear with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, who handed him his most important endorsement, in Clayton County, in eastern Iowa on Friday.

In both early states, however, polling in recent months has shown Trump is still a strong front-runner and is well-positioned to return to Washington after leaving in disgrace following his supporters’ mob attack on the US Capitol. Trump’s robust support among grassroots GOP voters, influence among Republican lawmakers in Washington and the reluctance of primary foes to openly take him on suggests that his control of the GOP is at least as strong as it was four years ago, despite his increasingly extreme behavior and rhetoric that has drawn comparison with the Nazis in 1930s Germany. Trump is expected to hold a string of events in Iowa in the run-up to the caucuses and his campaign and surrogates have increased attacks on Haley as she rises in New Hampshire.

Trump seems as strong as ever

Trump’s conduct of the 2024 primary campaign has been like no other presidential bid in history, partly because his route back to the White House is running more through the courts rather than a traditional political schedule. He spent much of the holiday season fulminating about special counsel Jack Smith, who heads a federal investigation into Trump’s 2020 election interference that is due to go to trial in early March – just before Super Tuesday — although Trump’s use of the appeals courts to try to establish that he is immune from prosecution as a former president could set back that start date.

The ex-president is likely to take the case all the way to the US Supreme Court, underscoring how the justices face becoming embroiled in a politically damaging set of disputes over the 2024 election.

In the latest spat in an increasingly acrimonious showdown between Trump and Smith, the special counsel on Wednesday wrote in a court filing that the judge should not allow him to inject false information into the eventual trial, to avoid prejudicing the jury and tarnishing the factual record. Trump has fused his court defense into his 2024 campaign by arguing that he’s a victim of political persecution by Biden.

Trump is also fixated on the ruling by the Colorado Supreme Court before the holiday that he is ineligible to appear on the ballot after infringing the 14th Amendment to the Constitution’s ban on insurrectionists. But as Wednesday’s contrary ruling in Michigan shows, the issue is a divisive one and given the lack of a clear direction from lower courts, the matter is also likely to end up before the US Supreme Court.

Biden faces stiff reelection winds

The final stretch of the primary race is unfolding against a contentious political backdrop that will shape the terrain of a likely contest between Biden and the eventual GOP nominee. Multiple polls over the last year have shown that voters are not that happy with the prospect of a Trump versus Biden rematch in 2024.

While recent polls showing Trump leading the president in the key swing states sparked panic among Democrats, the former president’s history of scaring off suburban and moderate voters makes him a high-risk candidate for Republicans. Indeed, Haley’s campaign highlights surveys showing she would do far better than Trump in a general election against Biden. But again, her path to the Republican nomination appears deeply problematic.

While the US is performing far more strongly in growth and job creation than most Western economies, the public mood has been soured by months of high interest rates that have made it hard to afford mortgages, rent and new cars. The president received cheering news before the holiday with fresh data showing that inflation is coming back to normal. But the prices of many goods, including staple food items in supermarkets, remain much higher than before the Covid-19 pandemic, in a way that explains downbeat assessments among voters about the state of the economy entering the election year.

Biden is also consumed by global crisis, including wars in the Middle East and Ukraine that test his claims to be a foreign policy expert and could play into Republican narratives that he is weak and that the world is out of control on his watch. Signs that young, Black and Hispanic voters are cooling on the president also spell danger for the White House.

Yet Trump’s Christmas rants on social media keep playing into the main thrust of the president’s reelection campaign — that the risk that the Republican front-runner poses to US democracy, free elections and the fundamental values of American life mean that he should not be trusted with presidential power ever again. This is why Biden’s camp seized on Trump’s promotion of the word cloud on his Truth Social account featuring words like “revenge” and “dictatorship.”

“Donald Trump wants to be president to exact revenge on his enemies – and he’s not even trying to hide it,” the Biden campaign said in a statement.

This story has been updated with additional information.

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