Republican presidential candidates are looking for a way to knock former President Donald Trump down a peg without alienating his supporters or facing criticism for their own past support of his administration.
One possible strategy? Tell voters he’s changed.
Ahead of tonight’s debate, Republicans have increasingly argued that the former president no longer holds the same beliefs that he did in 2016 and 2020. From abortion to foreign policy, they have suggested that voters who liked the first Trump presidency shouldn’t expect a repeat.
“In 2016, he stood on the convention stage and said ‘I am your voice.’ Today he says ‘I am your retribution,’” former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie told CNN earlier this month. “Those are two very different people.”
Trump’s recent abortion comments, in which he called the six-week abortion ban Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law a “terrible mistake,” opened the door for DeSantis to contrast the Trump of today with the former president who appointed the Supreme Court justices who helped overturn Roe v. Wade.
“I think it’s a window into how he’s changing as he’s running this campaign,” DeSantis told Radio Iowa on Monday. “I think he’s changing in a way that is not consistent with the values of the people in Iowa.”
Like DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence has tried to portray himself as the most consistent conservative voice in the field.
“While we governed as conservatives during our years in the White House, Donald Trump makes no such promise today,” Pence said during a Fox News interview this week.
Former South Carolina Nikki Haley said Trump was “the right president at the right time” after a voter asked how she thought Trump would be remembered in 100 years.
“He used to be good on foreign policy,” Haley, Trump’s former ambassador to the UN, said at a Portsmouth, New Hampshire campaign event last week. “And now he has started to walk it back and get weak in the knees when it comes to Ukraine.”
Trump continues to dominate the GOP primary, and attacking him directly is more likely to draw the ire of his supporters than convert them. But with the window to overtake him in the polls rapidly closing, candidates are facing increased pressure to convince voters to look elsewhere.
“The candidates need to make an argument for why they would be a better nominee than the front runner,” said Alex Conant, a Republican political strategist who worked on Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign. “They didn’t even try to do that at the first debate. It sounds like they’ll be focused on it in the second debate.”