TUSCALOOSA, Alabama—When Republican presidential contenders meet here Wednesday evening for their fourth televised debate, don’t expect them to break precedent and suddenly make an issue of Donald Trump’s multiple criminal indictments.
Chris Christie is the exception. He’s made Trump’s legal woes the central plank of his underdog bid to topple the Republican frontrunner. But Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley have conscientiously avoided criticizing Trump for allegations that he mishandled classified documents, obstructed justice, and engaged in a conspiracy to overturn the 2020 election. Top campaign advisers and leading super PAC strategists supporting DeSantis and Haley insist to The Dispatch that doing so would “boomerang” and have the opposite of the intended effect.
These Republicans shared the consensus assessment on condition that their comments not be tied directly to the campaigns or super PACs they work for. But veteran communicator Matt Gorman—who was, until last month, a spokesman for Tim Scott’s since-suspended presidential bid—explained the dilemma the party’s 2024 candidates have faced. Like DeSantis and Haley, Scott studiously refused to use the former president’s alleged misdeeds as the basis for political attacks.
“It doesn’t move a single vote in the Republican primaries,” Gorman said in an interview. “All these pundits love to talk about taking on Trump head on. If it were that simple and they’re so smart, they should go do it. It takes more strategy than running head first into a wall.”
Of course, choosing to give Trump a pass on his legally questionable behavior has also had the opposite of the intended effect.
Roughly six weeks before the January 15 Iowa caucuses and seven weeks before the January 23 New Hampshire primary, the former president laps the Republican field nationally, garnering 61.2 percent of the electorate’s vote, with his lead only growing since indictments started falling. In Iowa, he leads nearest opponent DeSantis, Florida’s governor, by 30 points. In New Hampshire, he leads nearest opponent Haley, the former South Carolina governor and ex-U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, by 27 points. (Notably, Trump’s chief defender among the Republican candidates, Vivek Ramaswamy, is performing even worse.)
Trump is skipping this latest primetime debate—hosted by NewsNation and held on the campus of the University of Alabama—just as he declined to participate in the first three, giving DeSantis and Haley a free shot at making the former president’s criminal indictments into an albatross. Republican operatives dedicated to helping DeSantis and Haley pull off upset victories are adamant such a strategy would be horribly self-defeating, even as 2024’s first nominating contests draw closer.
“Campaigns are going to behave rationally and it’s currently not in anyone’s interest to head down this road,” a strategist advising a super PAC said. Added a strategist advising one of the campaigns: “Christie sure as hell isn’t getting any traction.” The former New Jersey governor has attacked Trump relentlessly over his myriad ethical and legal scandals. But in New Hampshire, where Christie has campaigned almost exclusively, he’s running third with 11.3 percent.
Politically, Trump’s legal picture is complicated.
Virtually all Republicans, even those who oppose the former president, dismiss the indictment filed against him in New York City by District Attorney Alvin Bragg, alleging fraudulent business practices, as politically motivated and without merit, voters and activists have told The Dispatch in interviews. Conversely, the federal indictment for mishandling classified documents and obstructing justice, and a second federal indictment related to Trump’s efforts to overturn his loss to now-President Joe Biden, both brought by Special Council Jack Smith, are considered justified by many Republican insiders, according to conversations with them over the last several months.
But many Republican voters generally lump all of the indictments, including the one in Fulton County, Georgia, alleging Trump illegally interfered with the 2020 election there, in the same bucket. They see them as the product of a partisan Department of Justice and an incumbent president who wants to put his strongest opponent in jail before next fall’s election. Still other GOP voters view the indictments with more nuance but are nonetheless turned off by attacks on Trump because the criticism sounds like that employed by Democrats and the media.
That is why many Republican strategists who are neutral in the primary have concluded—just like their counterparts working for the presidential campaigns and super PACS—that it is counterproductive to pursue this line of attack against Trump. That’s especially the case, they say, because conservative media, where most GOP primary voters get their news, would likely undercut it.
“Our base holds the view that the entire federal system is rigged against them. The DOJ, FBI, IRS, and any other three-letter agency you can think of. The Dems have rigged all of it against us. Seriously, this is a nearly universally held belief among our base. Even most GOP primary voters who hate Trump believe this,” said a Republican pollster who has conducted dozens of focus groups with Republican voters across the country this year to explore this and other issues.
“The number of trials, including New York, only helps feed this point,” added this pollster, who is not affiliated with any presidential campaign or super PAC. “If the left had pursued just one case, that would likely have been far more credible to Republicans.” Indeed, when DeSantis does raise the issue of Trump’s indictments or is pressed on the matter by reporters, his comments tend to reflect these suspicions—that the former president is the victim of an unfair justice system.
“The weaponization of federal law enforcement represents a mortal threat to a free society,” DeSantis said in a post on X, formerly Twitter, after Trump was indicted in the documents case. “We have for years witnessed an uneven application of the law depending upon political affiliation.”
Republican voters seem to agree. As explained by a second neutral GOP pollster who has tracked the Republican primary since it began in earnest last winter, the former president’s poll numbers have jumped with each indictment.
Trump’s lead over DeSantis was somewhere in the single digits around the time of the first indictment, brought in New York City in April by Bragg. Soon after, that lead improved to around 18 to 20 points, according to the pollster. Then in July, after the first federal indictment was brought against Trump by Smith in the documents case, his lead over DeSantis grew to approximately 35 points. Four indictments in, Trump’s lead over the Florida governor is now 48 points.
“Here’s the other side,” the second pollster said. “Trump has an insurmountable lead. Why not throw the Hail Mary? Does one of the individual campaigns think the legal thing is the Hail Mary? The data says it won’t work.”