The 2024 Republican primary has long been billed as a two person race between Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
But in recent weeks, other GOP presidential hopefuls have been trying to carve out a third lane, doing so — in part — by portraying the two front runners as mere clones.
Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and former Vice President Mike Pence have begun more aggressively criticizing positions held by Trump, and now DeSantis, on a range of foreign and domestic issues. They have been aided, their respective teams believe, by DeSantis’ decision to leave little daylight between himself and Trump on key topics, from the war in Ukraine to entitlement reform.
“Ron DeSantis is copying Donald Trump on Ukraine, entitlement reform, and who knows what’s next?” Haley adviser Nachama Soloveichik said in a statement to POLITICO, describing the former South Carolina governor as “a leader on these serious issues facing our country’s future” who “will continue to note her differences with both Republicans and Democrats who want to bury their heads in the sand.”
“Republicans deserve a choice, not a copycat,” Soloveichik said.
A spokesperson for DeSantis did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The result has been a subterranean primary campaign within the primary campaign: a battle for a third-ranking spot in the Republican nominating contest. It is a position that could attract a smaller coalition of traditional conservatives — as the former president and DeSantis fish from the same pond of more populist-minded GOP voters — but one that could provide an outside chance of winning.
Haley this week placed an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal decrying “the weakness from some on the right” concerning Ukraine, while criticizing DeSantis’ “backward” suggestion that the conflict is a “territorial dispute.” In recent days, the former UN Ambassador has taken to Fox News to bash both Trump and DeSantis on the topic. “Trump is wrong in this way,” she told Brian Kilmeade, in what constituted a rare public rebuke of her former boss. She added, for good measure, that “DeSantis is completely wrong on this.”
DeSantis, who in Congress was hawkish on aid to Ukraine, last week announced his public position against continued military support for the country following pressure from Trump and his allies to take a stance on the issue. And despite previously supporting raising the retirement age and privatizing Social Security, DeSantis has more recently joined Trump in saying the programs like it and Medicare shouldn’t be touched.
For his part, Pence has deliberately sought to display contrasts with Trump and DeSantis perhaps more than any other competitor likely to enter the field.
“Mike has always been a limited government, consistent, constitutional conservative,” said Marc Short, Pence’s top adviser. “Voters and donors appreciate that consistency.”
On Tuesday evening at Washington & Lee University in Virginia, Pence sought to distinguish himself from Trump and DeSantis by calling for “common sense and compassionate” entitlement reforms. Echoing the more traditional GOP position, he told reporters he could not “endorse voices in our party today that simply want to walk past the problem of national debt by pledging to never touch Social Security and Medicare.”
The attempt to differentiate themselves from Trump and DeSantis is unlikely to result in an immediate surge of new support for either Haley or Pence, GOP operatives predict. But should Trump’s campaign crumble in the face of multiple indictments, and DeSantis fails to gain traction, it could set them up as fallback options and more traditional Republican leaders.
“You have to hold onto a narrative line that separates you from the populism of Trump,” said Chuck Coughlin, an Arizona-based political strategist. “I think they have to do it. And it’s a healthy thing, a sign that there’s a heartbeat in the Republican Party.”
The distinctions haven’t just been drawn around entitlements and Ukraine. Pence has also expressed disagreement with DeSantis' revoking of Disney's special tax status, calling it “beyond the scope of what I as a conservative, a limited government Republican, would be prepared to do.”
On the matter of Trump’s Supreme Court appointments and last summer’s anti-abortion ruling, Pence has taken a victory lap on the issue in ways his former boss hasn’t. When the ruling came down, Pence issued a statement saying “we must not rest and must not relent until the sanctity of life is restored to the center of American law in every state in the land.”
While Pence’s Tuesday night event highlighted his position on entitlement reforms, Haley has also openly called for changing Social Security and Medicare before solvency issues force cuts in the coming years.
She has suggested raising the retirement age for younger generations, cutting benefits for the wealthy, adjusting benefits based on inflation and expanding the Medicare Advantage program, which relies on private insurers. Trump has long balked at touching the programs. DeSantis, meanwhile, has reversed his support as a congressman for restructuring them.
It’s a risky bet for Haley and Pence to frame themselves at odds with Trump’s policies, even as foreign intervention and fiscal responsibility are policy positions that the pair have previously championed.
Republican primary voters now tend to be more skeptical of continued Ukraine aid, according to a new Morning Consult poll that found 46% believe supporting Ukraine is “not a vital U.S. interest.” GOP sentiment on the issue has changed dramatically in the last year. Still, more than one-third of the GOP, 37 percent, say it’s in the United States’ interest to support the country’s defense against Russia.
Paul Shumaker, a Republican pollster in North Carolina, also said staking out different positions from the frontrunners on issues like foreign policy and entitlement reform “is not enough to get you to a winning coalition.” But, he added, it could come in handy if the GOP field dramatically shifts in the coming months and the stakes become higher with the war in Ukraine.
“It could be very smart politics come the end of this year,” Shumaker said. “Just depends on what happens in the spirit of global affairs” — and whether the continued conflict “puts us into a new Cold War mentality” as seen during elections in the 1960s and 1980s.