This week the field of Republican presidential candidates grew by 2
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
This week, now ending, can be remembered for several things. One is the death of Tina Turner. And we will visit the Tina Turner Museum in a few minutes. Another is that my oldest child is graduating high school.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
What? Big ups. Congrats to the Inskeeps...
INSKEEP: (Laughter) Thank you. Thank you.
MARTIN: ...Especially dad and mom.
INSKEEP: Thank you. Congrats to everybody else graduating this season. Also this week, the Republican presidential field took firmer shape. South Carolina Senator Tim Scott and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis both declared. So six candidates are in. Few more are expected. And longtime Republican strategist Alex Conant has been watching all of this.
Alex, welcome back.
ALEX CONANT: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: OK. Gosh. A few months ago, there were a lot of surveys of Republican voters saying that many would like someone other than Trump to run as their nominee, even if they still love Donald Trump. But how are Republicans feeling now?
CONANT: Well, remember, a couple of months ago, we had just lost badly in the 2022 midterm elections - a lot of races that we thought we were going to win. We won the House, but just barely.
CONANT: And Trump took a lot of the blame for that. But just a couple of weeks ago, I think, when the Democratic prosecutor in New York indicted Donald Trump, dragged him to New York for a court appearance, that really rubbed a lot of Republicans the wrong way. The president got a lot of very favorable coverage, especially in conservative media, and the party started rallying around him again. And so you've seen a surge in his support and a drop in some of the other candidates since then.
INSKEEP: That would explain some of these polls that show Trump far ahead, suddenly, of any alternative.
CONANT: That's right. I think you've seen the party rally around him in recent weeks. But that said, if you talk to Republican voters, if you look at focus groups, as I have, there is still a real openness amongst Republicans for something different. It's just not obvious who that person is.
INSKEEP: Not obvious who that person is, meaning that Ron DeSantis is no longer the obvious alternative as the political class would have framed him a few months ago.
CONANT: I think Ron DeSantis has clearly had a couple of weeks, and I'm not sure that his launch this week, which stumbled out of the gates on Twitter - I'm not sure that that is going to help turn his ship around. Although, if you were to pick anyone right now, I think DeSantis would have to be the favorite to defeat Donald Trump simply because he's the only one showing any real life in the polls. He has reportedly about $200 million and a really good team around him, especially at the super PAC, to help kind of guide his ship. And so I think right now a lot of Republicans, especially a lot of Republican donors, who want to support somebody other than Donald Trump are looking to Ron DeSantis. But I think the field is about to get very crowded.
INSKEEP: Well, Tim Scott is in. Not only is he not the only Republican candidate; he's not the only Republican candidate from South Carolina. And I think nationally he's probably less famous, less well known than Nikki Haley, the former governor and U.N. ambassador. But which of those two seem stronger to you?
CONANT: I know Tim Scott very well. I worked in the Senate, as you know, for Marco Rubio. And Tim Scott endorsed Rubio in 2016. He was one of our best surrogates in that campaign. He's a very gifted communicator, really liked by other senators. I thought it was very telling that Senator John Thune endorsed Tim Scott, was at his launch. I think Tim Scott is definitely somebody that people want to watch. I think he will definitely have a moment. He'll do very well in the Republican debates this fall. I think he's somebody that could really emerge as an alternative, especially if DeSantis doesn't catch fire here in the next couple of weeks.
INSKEEP: John Thune, we'll mention, one of the top figures in the Senate. I want to ask something else, Alex. Donald Trump, of course, changed the Republican Party substantively - what it stood for. The party's still opposed to abortion, still in favor of tax cuts and some other things, but different views of Medicare and Social Security, different views of free trade, different views of immigration, foreign policy, Russia. Is any of the other candidates, who's declared or are about to come in, clearly trying to change the trajectory of the party in some way?
CONANT: I think several of them are. I mean, certainly, Tim Scott has really tried to position himself as a classical Reagan-esque Republican, talking about the power of free markets, the power of freedom, the importance of America being an example of the world, the importance of Ukraine winning in Russia. I think Tim Scott has clearly tried to make some distinctions with Donald Trump. And I expect that as other people enter the race. I think Mike Pence is going to run. Pence will also try to run as more of a classic Reagan Republican.
So I do think there is going to be several candidates who want to represent the more traditional conservative lane. But you're right. Donald Trump has changed the party. The rise of populism within both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party is real. And I think at its heart, that's what the 2024 Republican presidential primary on the Republican side is going to be about. Are we going to continue to be a populist party, as Trump has pushed? Or are we going to move back to being a more conservative party?
INSKEEP: Republican strategist Alex Conant. Thanks so much.
CONANT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.