Former President Donald Trump and current Florida Governor Ron DeSantis held dueling events in the early primary state of New Hampshire on Tuesday, as campaigning among the dozen or more Republicans seeking the presidency next year escalates.
DeSantis was on the stump in the town of Hollis, just before Trump spoke 65 kilometers (40 miles) to the north in Concord, the state capital.
The two rivals' common target on Tuesday: President Joe Biden, who at the age of 80 is running for a second term.
"If this election is about Biden's failures and our vision for the future, we are going to win. If it's about relitigating things that happened two, three years ago, we're going to lose," DeSantis said, standing in front a banner reading "Restore Sanity."
His remark was in response to a high school student's question about whether Trump violated the key democratic principle of the peaceful transfer of power by exhorting followers to disrupt the Electoral College vote count at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.
"We're going to evict crooked Joe Biden. He is crooked as hell," said Trump, who is the first sitting or former U.S. president to face federal criminal charges, at the Tuesday luncheon hosted by the New Hampshire Federation of Republic Women. "He's the most corrupt president we've ever had," and "grossly incompetent as head of the United States of America."
Trump, who is 77, has stated he will not drop out of the 2024 race even if convicted of any crime. In addition to being indicted on more than three dozen felony charges in connection with classified documents found at his Florida estate, an independent federal prosecutor is also examining his actions to interfere with the 2020 vote counting and the 2021 transfer of power to Biden.
In the state of Georgia, a district attorney is considering charges against Trump for attempting to overturn the 2020 election there. Trump also faces charges in the state of New York connected to his role in paying money to an adult film star.
Trump, in his New Hampshire remarks, said every time he is indicted, it is a "great, great beautiful badge of honor and courage."
Political strategist Stuart Stevens, a veteran of five Republican presidential campaigns, says "this is Trump's party. And I don't see any reason to believe that the legal issues that he has [are] changing that. I think in many ways, [they are] just solidifying it."
Trump has successfully portrayed himself as a victim of political persecution "and saw his numbers go up when the FBI invaded Mar-a-Lago, so it's a very strange and usual situation," Stevens told VOA.
Trump's lead over DeSantis, 44, who is in second place, has expanded following his recent federal indictment.
"Because the public is really smart, my numbers went up," Trump said on Tuesday, again accusing Biden, without substantiation, of weaponizing the Department of Justice to target him for political reasons.
"We're not going to let this election be stolen from us," the former president said of next year's presidential balloting. "I'd have to work really hard to blow this one," he said.
Trump leading in polls
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Fifty-one percent of national Republican primary voters in an NBC poll conducted June 16-20 selected Trump as their first choice in the race for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, followed by 22% who chose DeSantis. Former Vice President Mike Pence got 7%, while 5% indicated their preference for former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. No other Republican candidate received more than 4% of support.
Another credible survey, the Morning Consult poll, released on Tuesday and which contacted several thousand Republican primary voters June 23-25, puts Trump at 57% and DeSantis at 19%.
Trump told the New Hampshire women's group he will continue to attack DeSantis as long as his challenger remains in second place, predicting the governor would soon falter, and then he would target whoever replaces his fellow Floridian in that spot.
"I think every indication is that Donald Trump is going to be the nominee," predicted Stevens, who says he left the Republican Party due to its fealty to Trump.
The newest entrant in the Republican presidential primary field is former Congressman Will Hurd of Texas.
Hurd, who was a CIA operations officer in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, says in his campaign announcement video, "If we nominate a lawless, selfish, failed politician like Donald Trump, who lost the House, the Senate and the White House, we all know Joe Biden will win again."
Few other Republicans running are as openly critical of Trump, who would be eligible to serve only four years because he is a former one-term president.
Christie is viewed as the most outspoken critic of Trump, despite his former closeness to him. He is now telling voters that Trump's presidency "made us smaller by dividing us even further."
With the notable exclusion of Pence, many in the race are likely auditioning as a potential running mate, using this primary season as a warmup or hoping for a Cabinet post in a Republican administration as a consolation prize.
Those with diverse backgrounds presumed to aspire for second billing in 2024 or the top spot on the 2028 ticket include Trump's former ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley. She is one of two Republicans with South Asian roots who is running. The other is Ohio-born entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy. Another prominent candidate of color is Senator Tim Scott, a Black former insurance agent who grew up in working-class poverty.
Another recent entrant is Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, whose Cuban-born father also was mayor of the Florida city.
Suarez, like most of the crowded field, does not directly criticize Trump.
"If you're defined as against Joe Biden, that's a good thing in a Republican primary," said Stevens. "But I also think that history has shown that when you attack Donald Trump, he attacks back pretty hard. And I don't think — maybe Chris Christie is an exception — the rest of them are not looking to get into a street fight with Donald Trump."
Debate slated for August
For Republican voters, their first opportunity to assess many of those running for president will come when the candidates directly confront each other on August 23 at the party's initial debate of the primary season, to be held in Milwaukee in the important Midwestern swing state of Wisconsin.
Stevens, who spent decades electing Republicans at every political level, sees the 2024 general election as something beyond two parties with different ideologies — a battle by opposing groups believing the other poses an existential threat to the nation.
"We've never had that before, not since 1860" on the eve of the American Civil War, Stevens said. "And I think it's very difficult to guess how that's going to play out. But I don't think it's going play out in any normal traditional sense."