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NEW YORK (AP) — He's been indicted twice. Found liable for sexual abuse. And he's viewed unfavorably by about a third of his party. But six months before Republicans begin to choose their next presidential nominee, former President Donald Trump remains the race's dominant front-runner.
Early leaders don't always go on to win their party's nomination, but a growing sense of Trump's inevitability is raising alarms among some Republicans desperate for the party to move on. Some described a sense of panic — or “DEFCON 1," as one put it — as they scramble to try to derail Trump and change the trajectory of the race. But there's no clear plan or strategy on how to do that and Trump's detractors aren't rallying around a single alternative candidate yet.
“They're very concerned," former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said of fellow Republican leaders who share his view that renominating Trump would be a disaster for the party next November. Hogan, who opted out of a campaign of his own in fear that an unwieldy Republican field would only benefit Trump, described a moment of realization that, “Oh my gosh, we really could have Trump as the nominee.”
“People expected us to have made more progress than we have at this point," he said as polling finds Trump routinely besting his closest rival by 20 to 30 points or more.
Of course, the six months that remain until the Iowa caucuses can be an eternity in politics, where races can turn in a matter of weeks or days. And Trump faces glaring vulnerabilities, including state and federal investigations into his efforts to overturn the 2020 election and the possibility that he could end up in the unprecedented position of standing trial while simultaneously mounting a campaign.
But even critics acknowledge the outside events that many were counting on to dent Trump's standing — namely his criminal indictments in New York and Florida — have not hurt him. In fact, the charges led some voters who were entertaining an alternative to return to Trump's camp.
“The indictments have actually helped Donald Trump with the Republican primary voters," said Art Pope, a North Carolina GOP donor who is supporting former Vice President Mike Pence, but nonetheless believes the charges, particularly in New York, were unfounded.
Meanwhile, anti-Trump Republicans have yet to coalesce around an alternative, as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has struggled to build momentum, leaving many still waiting to see whether another viable alternative might emerge from the pack. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott has drawn growing attention.
Several groups that oppose Trump's candidacy have begun to spend big money on efforts to weaken his support, even if they have yet to rally around another candidate. Win It Back PAC, a new independent super PAC with ties to the conservative Club For Growth Action, spent $3.6 million this month on a new ad that features a purported Trump supporter who has grown tired of the former president's antics.
“I love Donald Trump, I love what he did," he begins. But “he’s got so many distractions ... and I’m not sure he can focus on moving the country forward."
The conservative Americans for Prosperity Action, which is part of the network founded by the billionaire Koch brothers, has also sought to undermine Trump through door knocking and phone calls. The group says it has found in conversations with voters that Trump's support is softer than most assume and that even some who identify as Trump supporters are concerned about his electability in a general election and open to an alternative.
Their mailers to voters in early states have focused on that message, including one that features photos of Trump and President Joe Biden and asks recipients, “Is it worth the risk?”
While officials with the group acknowledge they are facing pressure to rally around a non-Trump candidate, they say they are focused now on laying “the foundation” for a Trump alternative to emerge.
“That’s where most of the people we’re talking to are as well," said Drew Klein, the group’s state director. "They’re not necessarily locked in with a candidate, but they know we’ve got to move on.”
Not everyone, however, agrees with the anti-Trump strategy. Former GOP pollster Frank Luntz, who has been running focus groups in Iowa, warned such messaging “makes it more likely that Trump wins because it turns him into a victim."
He said he's found Republican voters are open to an alternative and that the first GOP debate, scheduled for August 23rd, will be critical.
“The moon and the stars will need to be aligned for Trump to be defeated," he said. “And it will be done by the candidate that supports the Trump agenda but opposes the lack of success.”
Political trajectories can change in an instant, particularly after voting begins. During the 2008 campaign, the eventual GOP nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain, didn't emerge as the race's frontrunner until January 2008. And then-Sen. Hillary Clinton appeared to have a decisive advantage for the Democratic nomination until she was overtaken by Barack Obama.
But no former president has mounted a run after losing reelection in the modern era. And Trump maintains a fervent hold on a portion of the party. Indeed, it was eight years ago this month when the then-reality star and political newcomer began to pull ahead in the polls, surpassing rival Jeb Bush to move into first place — a position he’d hold until he won the nomination.
Ralph Reed, a longtime Republican strategist who is the chairman of the evangelical Faith and Freedom Coalition, said Trump remains in the "strongest position" of any candidate, but still believes the race "will be competitive and hard fought.”
“No one should take any state for granted, no one should take this primary for granted because anything can happen and often does," he said. “Almost every front-runner has a near-death experience.”
Critics and rival campaigns point to what they perceive as a growing list of Trump campaign missteps, particularly in Iowa, where he has criticized the state's popular governor, Kim Reynolds, for her seemingly cozy relationship with DeSantis while purporting to be neutral. He's also skipped a pair of GOP gatherings that attracted most of his top rivals.
After his rivals spent Friday in Iowa at the Family Leadership Summit, Trump had the stage largely to himself Saturday at the annual Turning Point Action conference, a gathering of thousands of young conservatives in Florida.
While DeSantis has had a years-long relationship with organizer Charlie Kirk and had been been featured at last year's event alongside Trump and received a warm welcome from the crowd, DeSantis turned down the group’s invitation, citing a scheduling conflict.
“You only have a few opportunities in the grand scheme of an election cycle to get in front of major groups and all the media and to pass up this opportunity to lay out your vision for America I just think is one of the biggest mistakes," said Tyler Bowyer, chief operating officer of Turning Point Action.
Trump, in his remarks to the group, called DeSantis' campaign a “hopeless cause” and said the millions he has raised and spent “should be used to support the party winning against Crooked Joe Biden in November of 2024.”