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Trail Tales

And what they tell us about the campaigns.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks at a town hall-style event at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College on June 6, 2023, in Manchester, New Hampshire. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Olive Garden Soup, Salad, and Breadsticks

Here’s a little check-in with each of the campaigns, looking at a single vignette from the past week. 

Mike Pence: The Premature Pardon

Pence recently did an interview with right-wing radio hosts Clay Travis and Buck Sexton, in which he refused to say whether he’d pardon Trump once in office. The hosts wanted Trump pardoned, and Pence basically had three answers. First, he riffed on the fact that he believes these are “serious charges” and he “can’t defend what’s been alleged.” Second, he says it’s “premature” to discuss a pardon because we don’t know what “the president’s defense is” or “what are the facts.” And then third, he says “we either believe in our judicial process in this country or we don’t; we either stand by the rule of law or we don’t.” Travis was having none of it: “What I’m hearing is that you’re fine with Donald Trump being put in prison and that to me, since you were his vice president, feels pretty disrespectful.”  

Strength: He’s carving out his own lane and is sticking to it. Normally, I’m not impressed with candidates who refuse to answer questions because they look like they’re being evasive for political reasons. The lack of authenticity is like nails on a chalkboard. But here, it actually is a real answer. He thinks the charges are real, but he’s open to hearing Trump’s side of the story. 

Weakness: Like his 2004 brand of conservatism, it’s unclear who the audience is for this right now. The host really was speaking for a large chunk of the GOP primary electorate when he said, “I think as a matter of principle, if you believe as both Buck and I do, that Donald Trump is being prosecuted to a large extent for political based reasons, something that has never happened in the 240-plus year history of the United States, that we are setting an awful precedent here.” (Now ask these folks if they’d like Pence to pardon both Trump and Biden when he gets into office.) But Pence also garbled his own message in the same news cycle, saying the first person he would fire is FBI Director Chris Wray and that he would “clean house” at the Department of Justice. But if DOJ is so corrupt, why should we take the DOJ-brought charges seriously? 


Tim Scott: Race and Racism 

Former President Barack Obama gave an interview last week in which he said, “I think there’s a long history of African-American or other minority candidates within the Republican Party who will validate America and say, ‘Everything’s great, and we can make it.’ … I’m not being cynical about Tim Scott individually, but I am maybe suggesting the rhetoric of ‘Can’t we all get along?’ … that has to be undergirded with an honest accounting of our past and our present.”

Scott had plenty to say in response, tweeting: “Let us not forget we are a land of opportunity, not a land of oppression. Democrats deny our progress to protect their power. The Left wants you to believe faith in America is a fraud and progress in our nation is a myth. The truth of MY life disproves the lies of the radical Left. We live in a country where little Black and Brown boys and girls can be President of the United States. The truth is – we’ve had one and the good news is – we will have another.”

Strength: First of all, I hope the Scott campaign sent Obama a muffin basket for the generous T-ball set he set up for him. Allowing Scott to aim his fire at Obama (versus Trump or other GOP candidates) is not only politically helpful, but talking about the role of race in America is also Scott’s greatest strength in the GOP electorate so far. I’ve mentioned this before, but by a lot of measures he is the most well liked of all the candidates in the race, and it’s because he is an entertaining, optimistic speaker who gives them an answer to a truth that is uncomfortable for many GOP voters—that so few black Americans vote Republican. But Scott provides them the answer: Minorities vote for Democrats because they’re being lied to by the left, and if they heard what Tim Scott is saying, they’d be Republicans like him. 

Weakness: The news cycle was too choppy to give this exchange the attention the Scott campaign would have wanted. They tried everything they could—tweets, conservative talk radio, Fox News Sunday, but I’d be surprised if you, dear reader, saw much about it. The Scott team would love nothing more than to run against Obama in a GOP primary, but GOP primary voters are a little distracted right now. And unfortunately, liking Tim Scott isn’t the same as voting for him.


Chris Christie: Saying What We’re All Thinking

I consider Christie a friend, which probably means I’m reflexively harsher on him, but it also means I think I get him a little better too. So when I saw this interview with Jake Tapper where Christie walked through all of Trump’s “before and after” comments about members of his Cabinet, I smiled. 

Look, either Donald Trump—if you believe what he said when they left, that means he didn’t pick the very best people and doesn’t know how to pick personnel. If you believe what he said about them in the beginning — the great stuff — then this guy is the worst manager in the history of the American presidency. Either way, Republicans should listen to what he says. He’s a petulant child when someone disagrees with him. … If you disagree with Donald Trump, the petulant child comes out and he calls you names.

And what about the pledge to support the eventual GOP nominee that the RNC is requiring to get on the debate stage—even if that nominee is a convicted felon? “I’ll take the pledge in 2024 just as seriously as Donald Trump took it in 2016,” said Christie.

Strength: Christie was born for this type of political pugilism. He’s better on his feet than any GOP candidate I’ve ever seen. The faster the news cycle, the more it feeds into his competitive advantage. His YOLO campaign style this time around also feels like he’s having more fun than in 2016 when I felt his punches had a little bit more of a darker, angrier tone. (Though I’m quick to remind myself that where you stand depends on where you sit, and there was some bad blood between the Christie and Fiorina campaigns around New Hampshire—so perhaps my memory is not to be entirely trusted on that front.) 

His numbers are moving in New Hampshire, where he’s now sitting at third behind Ron DeSantis and Trump. I’d imagine his campaign is singularly focused on meeting the threshold for the debate, where they know their guy will shine. And where other campaigns need the news cycle to move on from Trump, Christie is more like a racoon—he’ll thrive in your urban sprawl while other more finicky, more timid forest creatures retreat.  

Weakness: There’s two big ones for me. First, Christie is quickly becoming a favorite of the pundit class. That should always be a red flag when we’re talking about primary voters. Second, he makes it all look very easy, which undermines his success. The pundits think the other candidates aren’t landing punches like Christie is against Trump because they don’t want to—which is no doubt partially true—but they also couldn’t if they wanted to. Christie is an exceptional talent, but his talent is that he makes you feel like you could have said the same thing. But if everyone thinks that anyone could do what Christie does, then why do you need Christie doing it? 


Vivek Ramaswamy: Why Are We Talking About This Guy?

Per usual, Ramaswamy had his sights set on DeSantis last week. This time about the “pardon issue,” in which Ramaswamy called on every other candidate to commit to pardoning Trump and then went after DeSantis for not taking the pledge. 

“I don’t think it’s good when politicians try to hide, try to talk out of both sides of their mouth,” Ramaswamy told Rolling Stone. “It’s possible he’ll come out adopting my position later. I think that’s a trend we’ve seen throughout this campaign. If the last six months are any indication, my prediction is he’ll come around to my position.”

Strength: He’s doing the one thing a candidate in his position has to do to survive: get attention. He’s polling better than he should and GOP primary voters find him interesting. He’s the type of candidate whom small-dollar donors like, and indeed he’d already racked up 10,000 donors by March—already a quarter of what he’ll need to make the debate stage.

Weakness: It’s hard to take someone seriously who so clearly isn’t running for president. Sure, you can criticize Haley or Scott for hedging their bets, but if Trump fell off the planet tomorrow, their campaigns are ready to switch into a different gear. And they’re laying the groundwork for 2028. The criticism of Ramaswamy is that he’s attacking DeSantis—not to benefit his own campaign—but to benefit Trump’s. Why? He’s from Ohio—a deep-and-becoming-deeper red state—where a vulnerable Democratic senator happens to be up for reelection. Savvy watchers might wonder whether he saw Andrew Yang parlay a ”‘who-is-this-guy” presidential run into a credible New York mayoral campaign and thought, “Huh, I can do that and then some!”


Nikki Haley: Laying Low 

On the one hand, Haley has clearly been trying to find her footing—she did a CNN town hall a couple of weeks ago but didn’t garner the attention she might have hoped for. Now she’s announced that she’s giving an address on China at the American Enterprise Institute this week—but it’s hard to know what she could say that would stand out in a field that largely agrees that China is bad aside from touting her expertise, which is unlikely to move numbers in a crowded field. 

But when it comes to Trump, she’s having a hard time finding her voice. First, she said about the indictment, “this is not how justice should be pursued in our country.” Then after the charges were unsealed, she said that Trump was “incredibly reckless with our national security.” And then when asked whether she’d pardon Trump on the same show as Pence, she said, “When you look at a pardon, the issue is less about guilt and more about what’s good for the country. And I think it would be terrible for the country to have a former president in prison for years because of a documents case. So I would be inclined in favor of a pardon.” Woof.

Strength: Not making news may be in Haley’s best interest right now. If the hope is that Trump goes away, then it makes sense. If he wins in 2024, he’ll be term-limited and she can run in 2028 with some of this experience under her belt. If he loses again, maybe GOP voters will finally be ready to move on. Either way, Haley is far better off with Trump as the nominee than, say, a DeSantis. 

Weakness: Haley isn’t one thing or the other. She has one foot in the new Republican Party, but she still has a foot in the old one, too. She wants to federalize abortion law, but isn’t sure what it should look like. She says January 6 was a terrible day, but also supports election integrity efforts that are driven by people who think the election was stolen. She’s for intervention in Ukraine and entitlement reform. She’s also against red flag laws. She’s a little bit country, a little bit rock ‘n’ roll. It could work really well, but this version hasn’t come together just yet.


Ron DeSantis: Fighting the Culture of Losing

“We’ve developed a culture of losing in this party,” DeSantis said at a fundraiser in Nevada. “You’re not going to get a mulligan on the 2024 election.” He has delivered versions of this line for months, but it’s starting to take on a new meaning after the Trump indictment. 

Strength: He’s right. Not that being right matters much these days, but the GOP seems to enjoy marinating in its own victimhood more than winning these days. Just take this tweet, which sums up the problem nicely: 

It’s also tactically a smart play. Trying to outflank Trump from the right on issues didn’t work for Ted Cruz in 2016, and there’s no reason to think it would turn the tide now either. But convincing Republicans that Trump can’t win would be far more deadly—if he can do it. 

Weakness: The problem for DeSantis is that a) a majority of GOP primary voters think Trump can beat Biden and b) some of them—like our tweeter above—think it doesn’t matter because losing is also winning, or something. And DeSantis isn’t actually saying that the “culture of losing” is about Trump yet. So out in the audience, you could be forgiven for thinking he’s talking about Bud Light or Kari Lake or whatever. Maybe he’s waiting until the indictment fervor dies down, but he’s running out of time to make his actual case: Losing isn’t winning, and Donald Trump keeps losing.


Tiramisu

I was down in Texas this past week. I ate beef fajitas at five different meals. Drove by the Johnson Space Center. Found my old Astros hat. And recited the Texas Pledge at a luncheon. Do other states have pledges? Are people as psyched to do them as any crowd of Texans? 

For those unfamiliar, first, Texans pledge our allegiance “to the flag of the greatest country in the world.” Then we turn to that Lone Star and pledge allegiance “to the flag of the greatest state in that country.”

Honor the Texas Flag:

I pledge allegiance to thee,

Texas, one state under God,

one and indivisible.

Sarah Isgur is a senior editor at The Dispatch and is based in northern Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2019, she had worked in every branch of the federal government and on three presidential campaigns. When Sarah is not hosting podcasts or writing newsletters, she’s probably sending uplifting stories about spiders to Jonah, who only pretends to love all animals.