Tuesday, February 20, 2024

The 2024 Republican primary is entering a fraught and caustic new phase, as Donald J. Trump’s wide lead remains undiminished, the days until voting begins dwindle and his rivals take aim at each other as much as at him.

Ahead of Wednesday’s debate in Miami, the campaigns of Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley and Tim Scott each put out memos on the state of the race that knifed each other’s viability, skills and standing, in a bid to present themselves as the only true alternative to Mr. Trump, the man who refuses to debate them. The Trump campaign put out a memo, too. It ignored his primary rivals entirely, and instead previewed his run against President Biden, one year out from the general election.

The dueling memos and drastically different schedules in the run-up to the debate — Mr. Trump was in court giving sworn testimony in his financial fraud case, while his rivals were readying their debate zingers and campaigning in Iowa — captured the stark reality of a primary that is proceeding on two parallel tracks.

There is Mr. Trump, the front-runner. And there are his Republican opponents, increasingly doing battle with an unseen force that threatens them all in equal measure: a growing sense of inevitability and resignation — among donors, Trump skeptics and Democrats alike — that 2024 will be a rematch of 2020.

The primary is obviously not over, despite the Trump team’s attempt to brand it as the race for “first place loser.” Polls often shift late. No votes have been cast. Yet Mr. Trump’s fractured opposition, and the persistent focus on one of them emerging as the leading “Trump alternative,” echo the dynamics of his first run in 2016, when his rivals spent millions of dollars on ads attacking each other while he marched to the nomination.

“At least that was a viable strategy then,” said Sarah Isgur, who was a top adviser to Carly Fiorina’s presidential campaign that year. “Because at least if you knocked out everyone, you could have beaten Trump. That’s not true this time. Even if you got a one-on-one race, I don’t see the math.”

Liam Donovan, a Republican strategist, said Mr. Trump’s rivals appeared to be mindlessly repeating the mistakes of the past. “Despite what has amounted to a rerun, Trump’s challengers seem determined not to try anything new at all,” he said.

Besides Mr. Trump, only one of the 2024 candidates ran in 2016: former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey. And he has sounded the alarm on the strategy of focusing more on each other than Mr. Trump. In a recent slide presentation prepared for donors, his campaign faulted what it called “wishful thinking by the other candidates that Trump will magically collapse on his own,” though Mr. Christie’s broadsides have so far not significantly advanced the candidate himself.

For now, Iowa, increasingly, is the epicenter of the action.

In a blunt admission, the DeSantis campaign said in its memo that a blowout Trump victory in Iowa could effectively give him the nomination. “If Trump were to win big in Iowa it would create media and political momentum for his candidacy that would be difficult to stop,” wrote James Uthmeier, Mr. DeSantis’s campaign manager.

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