WEST DES MOINES, Iowa
(AP) — Nikki Haley
has regaled activists in Iowa, Mike Pence
has courted donors in California
, and Donald Trump
has returned to the campaign trail, hinting at a third presidential campaign.
The midterm elections
are more than a year away, and the next presidential election
is 1,225 days away, but Republicans
considering a run for the White House
quickly to secure a strong position in what could be an extremely crowded field of contenders.
The politicking will only intensify in the coming weeks, particularly in Iowa, home to the nation's first presidential caucuses and a state where conservative evangelicals
play a significant role in steering the GOP
's direction. Arkansas
Sen. Tom Cotton
is scheduled to visit on Tuesday, and others, including Pence, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
, are scheduled to visit.
The uptick in activity indicates that there is no clear frontrunner to lead the Republican Party
if Trump decides not to run in 2024.
“It definitely feels early, but it doesn’t feel like a bad idea given the circumstances,” said Mike DuHaime, a longtime Republican strategist. “The party has changed, the voters
are changing, and I think the process has changed, and I think many of the candidates have realized that.”
For the time being, a key question in Republican politics
is whether Trump, who continues to spread lies
about his loss to Joe Biden
last year, will run again; the former president has stated that he will make a decision after next year's midterm elections.
Meanwhile, he faces mounting legal risks, including the possibility that prosecutors in Manhattan
will file criminal charges against his company as soon as this week, and he is being investigated by a district attorney
for attempting to influence election officials to change results in his favor.
Still, Trump, who left office in January under the threat of impeachment
for inciting a riot at the United States
Capitol, is flirting with a political future. Returning to the rally stage for the first time as a private citizen last weekend, Trump looked every bit the candidate as an enthusiastic crowd of thousands in Ohio
chanted, “Four more years!”
“We won the election twice,” he said, adding, “and it's possible we'll have to win it again.”
The specter of Trump has been especially difficult for Republicans like Pence. As a conservative evangelical Christian who was Trump's unwaveringly loyal vice president, Pence would appear to be appealing to many of the party's activists. However, his decision to follow the constitutional process and certify Biden's victory enraged many in the GOP.
Though he continues to praise Trump's accomplishments, Pence has recently worked to forge his own identity, separating from his former boss in particular over the severity of the deadly Jan. 6 riot, which forced him into hiding but which many Republicans have sought to downplay.
That balancing act was highlighted Thursday, when Pence delivered a speech to a sold-out crowd of more than 800 people
at the Ronald Reagan
, as part of a swing through California that included donor meetings and a keynote speech at a Republican National Committee
After being booed and jeered the week before at a conservative conference in Florida
, Pence appeared to have a newfound sense of swagger as he delivered his strongest rebuttal to date to Trump's continued insistence that he could have unilaterally overturned the results of the previous election. Many Trump supporters
continue to blame Pence for Trump's loss, despite the fact that he had no power to overturn the results.
“The truth is, there is almost no idea more un-American than the notion that any single person can choose the American president,” Pence said, adding that he would “always be proud that we did our part, on that tragic day, to reconvene the Congress
and fulfill our duty under the Constitution and the laws of the United States.”
It's been a similar tightrope act for Haley, Trump's former UN ambassador and former South Carolina governor
, who harshly criticized Trump after the Capitol riot
on Jan. 6 but has since largely avoided the subject.
Haley presented herself as a next-generation conservative figure to about 500 Republican activists at a Thursday dinner during a three-day swing through Iowa.
Like Pence, Haley spent much of her speech praising Trump's tenure
in office and sharing anecdotes about her work with him that elicited laughter throughout the chamber, while ignoring the deadly siege at the Capitol and Trump's months-long campaign to cast doubt on the outcome of the 2020 election
, despite the lack of evidence of the widespread fraud
“As ambassador to the United Nations
, I saw firsthand how Donald Trump prioritized America, sometimes in the most unusual ways,” she said.
Haley also appeared on a popular conservative radio talk show on Friday and headlined fundraisers for statehouse and county officials, including Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds.
“There are many reasons why I love Iowa,” she said, “but perhaps the most important is that Iowa loves to elect badass Republican women
The activity comes as no surprise to activists in the states where their party's candidates will ultimately be chosen first.
“It takes time to court states like New Hampshire
and Iowa,” said Greg Moore, the New Hampshire state director of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political advocacy group founded by the Koch brothers. “And it’s fine
and dandy if you’re President Trump and you have prebuilt infrastructure
in the state and just have to turn the key, but for everyone else, you have to build that.”
So far, polls and interviews indicate that voters are far from settling on a favorite, despite the fact that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis
is frequently mentioned as a possible Trump successor, and he is one of the few leading Republicans who has yet to visit Iowa this year.
At a GOP event in California last week, retiree Bob Egbert, 75, praised Trump but doubted a third run would be beneficial to the party. Egbert likes what he sees in DeSantis and sees Pence's low-key personality as a liability with voters.
“I think he would be a nice, bland candidate,” Republican Egbert said, “and I don’t think that’s what we need.”
Former Republican California Gov. Pete Wilson predicted a “spirited contest” in 2024 but declined to pick a favorite among the emerging candidates.
What about Donald Trump?
“After all, it is his decision. It is a decision he shares with his family
,” Wilson said. “He is much admired. It is clear from what has happened that he is much feared and demonized by this (Biden) administration.”
Colvin contributed reporting from Wellington, Ohio, and Michael R. Blood of the Associated Press
contributed from Simi Valley, California.