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Trump’s convention marks 2024 starting gun

Nikki Haley has long been suspected of angling for a future White House run. So it wasn’t surprising when the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations reached out to President Donald Trump recently to ask to speak during next week’s Republican National Convention.

The president agreed — and in recent weeks, he has remarked privately about the throng of potential 2024 aspirants who’ve made requests for coveted speaking slots.

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Trump’s reelection is up in the air, but Republicans with national aspirations are already maneuvering to be the GOP’s standard-bearer in four years — an under-the-radar campaign that will burst into the open at the convention. Republicans anticipate an intense clash as the party prepares for a post-Trump world, whether he’s still in office or not.

Haley will join a slate of potential 2024 Republican presidential candidates on prime-time TV for the virtual convention — each looking for the kind of breakout moment that helped catapult Barack Obama to the presidency. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, and Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst are expected to speak, as is South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, whom Haley appointed to the Senate. So, too, will Vice President Mike Pence and Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr.

The 2024 primary “will be a battle for soul of the party, and the jockeying for position has already begun,” said Republican strategist Mike DuHaime, who helped spearhead ex-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s 2016 presidential bid.

Some of the jockeying is in plain sight, and some of it is playing out behind the scenes.

A pair of Senate primaries provided an early window into how candidates are positioning themselves. While Cotton aided the establishment-backed former Ambassador Bill Hagerty in Tennessee, Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas bolstered the insurgent candidate, trauma surgeon Manny Sethi. (Hagerty won.) And while Cotton has thrown his weight behind retired Army Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc in the upcoming New Hampshire primary, Paul is backing self-described outsider Corky Messner.

Sen. Tom Cotton. | Alex Brandon/AP Photo

Potential 2024 candidates are also auditioning for major contributors. Cotton recently appeared at a donor conference in Jackson Hole, Wyo., that was hosted by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. Pence phoned into a conference call held by the Republican Jewish Coalition, which is partly funded by megadonor Sheldon Adelson. Florida Sen. Rick Scott has spoken with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell about running the National Republican Senatorial Committee, a position that would give him an entrée to the party’s funders.

Some early clues have emerged about which big donors the candidates are cultivating. The contributors to Paul’s super PAC include financial executive Jeffrey Yass, food processing company owner Chris Rufer and investor George Macricostas. All have a history of giving to libertarian causes.

Cotton’s super PAC has received funding from two sought-after Republican megadonors: Paul Singer, a billionaire hedge fund manager who shares the Arkansas senator’s hawkish approach to foreign policy, and Arkansas investment banker Warren Stephens.

Some would-be candidates are traveling to early primary states despite the pandemic. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took a break from his busy overseas travel schedule for a recent appearance at the Iowa Family Leader summit, a regular stop for presidential hopefuls. Paul is expected to campaign this fall for congressional candidates in New Hampshire and South Carolina. Noem is slated to headline a September political dinner in Iowa and is expected to make a preelection appearance in New Hampshire to campaign for Trump.

In other cases, prospective White House contenders are using the 2020 election to develop alliances that could pay off in four years. Cruz has long been criticized for not getting along with his colleagues, but the Texas senator is aiming to raise millions of dollars for down-ballot House candidates by hosting a donor conference in Aspen, Colo., this week.

Earlier this year, Rick Scott invited a half-dozen Republicans up for election onto his private plane to attend a series of fundraisers across Florida.

Tim Scott, the only Black Republican in the Senate, has been endorsing candidates through the Empower America Project, an organization devoted to diversifying the party. Paul has been among the most aggressive, spending millions through his super PAC to boost Republican candidates.

“The Iowa caucus is 840 days away. Candidates that don’t use these opportunities to prepare are making a profound mistake,” said Republican strategist Jeff Roe, who has worked on past presidential campaigns. “Any opportunity to build your brand, build your list and flex your political muscle should be taken advantage of.”

“In 2024, people are going to ask what you did in 2020 to get the president reelected, save the Senate and win the House,” Roe added. “Where were you when it mattered?”

The early jockeying has caught the attention of the White House. Last week, several aides passed around a newly released survey showing Pence leading in a prospective 2024 GOP primary, followed by Donald Trump Jr. and Haley. While Pence has been focusing his attention on the 2020 contest, his activity has at times overlapped with early-voting states: The vice president went to Iowa last week, and he has introduced New Hampshire congressional candidate Matt Mowers to party donors.

Pence has been in touch with prominent conservative groups. He has phoned into conference calls this summer hosted by The Heritage Foundation, abortion-rights opponent Susan B. Anthony List and FreedomWorks.

The most pressing question confronting the future candidates is how — or whether — they will align themselves with Trump. While Cotton and Rick Scott have taken the highly unusual step of running TV ads backing the president, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan authored a new book in which he blasts the president for being “all over the place” in response to the coronavirus.

Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, another Trump critic, is focusing on helping the reelection bids of fellow senators, not the president. A person close to Sasse said that after defeating a pro-Trump primary opponent this spring, the Nebraska senator would be raising money and campaigning for vulnerable senators. Sasse has already helped a slate of incumbents, including Ernst.

Others are taking advice from some of Trump’s closest aides. Noem has been getting informal advice from Trump’s 2016 campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has been in regular contact with Brad Parscale, who until recently led Trump’s reelection campaign.

Some potential 2024 aspirants are doing cameos in the president’s reelection effort: Florida Sen. Marco Rubio recently appeared on a Trump campaign-hosted conference call and bashed then-Democratic vice presidential prospect Karen Bass for her views on Cuba.

Next week’s convention will provide the biggest stage yet. Donald Trump Jr. has been drafting his address with George Mason University Law School professor Frank Buckley and former White House aides Cliff Sims and Andrew Surabian. Buckley helped the younger Trump write the fiery 2016 convention speech that helped vault him to conservative prominence. (Despite widespread speculation, Trump Jr.’s allies insist he has no interest in running for president in 2024.)

Not everyone in the 2024 mix is certain to speak. Though the schedule was still being finalized early this week, Cruz and Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley are not expected to have slots. It is unclear whether Rick Scott or Paul will.

Long criticized for lacking diversity in their ranks, Republicans say they’re looking to highlight minority and female officeholders during the convention. They also want to give a platform to Trump’s nonpolitician supporters.

Republicans predict that a Trump defeat would hasten the 2024 primary, with candidates sparring over what direction the party should take.

“I think it first starts as a circular firing squad,” said Republican strategist Terry Sullivan, who was Rubio’s 2016 campaign manager. “There will be a lot of blaming going on.”


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