Why Trump’s GOP rivals don’t dare hit his greatest liability even as time runs out to take him down

Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN

CNN  —  Donald Trump’s closest and increasingly desperate primary rivals are cranking up the heat of their attacks, accusing him of lying about them, running scared of debates and even of being a bust as president.

But with the Iowa caucuses only 13 days away, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley won’t dare jab the Republican front-runner over the key liability that could trip him up in a general election and will haunt him in history: his assault on American democracy.

Their reticence might suggest campaign malpractice and betray a lack of political courage as Trump adopts an ever more autocratic tone ahead of a possible presidency he vows to use for personal retribution.

Indeed, as one Iowa voter put it to DeSantis in a written question at a Gray TV town hall Tuesday: “Why do you protect Trump? What are you scared of?”

But his opponents’ posture does make strategic sense given that the ex-president appears to have an even firmer grip on the GOP than when he left Washington in disgrace after trying to overturn the 2020 election. Trump’s hold is partly based on his disruptive character, refusal to play by the rules and folk hero status with GOP voters. But his power is also being reinforced by the base’s widespread disinterest in any attempt to call him to account for his anti-democratic behavior and for the idea that he should bear any blame for outrages like his supporters’ mob attack on the US Capitol.

Just as when he was president, when his dominance faced down his GOP critics in Congress, Trump’s superpower is shielding him from the consequences of his actions and making it politically impossible for primary rivals who want to win a share of his voters to hold him to account.

Ahead of a two-week period when he faces a staggering array of court obligations and possible reverses in his cases, Trump on Tuesday made a fresh move in the complex legal tangle caused by his constant challenge against political constraints. He lodged an appeal against a decision by Maine’s Democratic secretary of state to throw him off the ballot over 14th Amendment’s ban on “insurrectionists. That followed the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision to do the same, which he’s also expected to appeal. Both cases are likely to end up at the US Supreme Court.

If history is any guide, the ballot issue – which is constitutionally controversial even among many liberal legal scholars – will further bind Trump to his base voters, as have his four criminal indictments and his civil fraud trial in New York.

And it will leave DeSantis and Haley casting around yet again for a way to attack Trump, without alienating Republicans who still feel warmly toward him.

DeSantis is desperate for an opening

DeSantis, who’s banking on an upset result in Iowa to revive a campaign that once promised to be a countrywide juggernaut, hit out at the ex-president Tuesday for refusing to commit to a CNN debate next week in the Hawkeye State. He suggested he’d be a far better Oval Office implementor of Trumpism than its author.

“Why shouldn’t he have to answer questions? He is running on things like deporting illegals and building a wall, but he did that in ’16 and didn’t get it done. So, I think he owes answers to those questions,” DeSantis said.

Later in the Gray TV town hall, the Florida governor also denied that he’d gone easy on Trump and insisted he’d drawn a strong contrast with the ex-president.

Haley – campaigning in New Hampshire, where she hopes to emerge as the last standing alternative to Trump – told voters that the former president’s heated new attacks on her show he’s worried about her challenge.

“In his commercials and in his temper tantrums, every single thing that he said has been a lie. Every single one. I looked for some grain of truth, every single one,” she said, rejecting Trump’s claims about her gas tax policy while governor.

“The biggest thing that everybody’s talking about is how good the economy was under Trump. It was, right? But at what cost? He put us $8 trillion in debt in just four years,” she said, later adding, “You don’t go and pretend to have a good economy by putting us in debt.”

But like DeSantis, Haley didn’t touch the anti-democratic elephant in the room.

And while they are stepping up their focus on Trump, Haley and DeSantis are now turning searing attacks on one another. An ad from a pro-Haley super PAC running in Iowa slams DeSantis as a “phony” and “too lame to lead.” The DeSantis political war room has been blasting Haley as “Tricky Nikki.” The vicious tone reflects the fact that Haley and DeSantis both badly need to emerge from January as the clear alternative to Trump to survive in the presidential race.

Their mutual antagonism ahead of the official start of the GOP nominating race in Iowa on January 15 has many observers believing they are locked in a race for second place in a nationwide contest. Trump securing the GOP nod would be a stunning political comeback only three years after subjecting US democracy to its biggest test in modern times.

While many Americans and much of the free world views with horror the prospect of his return to power, Trump’s continued dominance among Republicans reflects a massive disconnect of political and factual perception that cuts down the middle of America.

Most Republicans have little patience for the idea that democracy is threatened

While Democrats and the media fixate on the consequences for democracy in a second Trump term, there’s a remarkable lack of appetite among GOP voters for accountability for what happened at the end of the last presidency. This long antipathy to considering the events of January 2021 has long shaped the behavior of top GOP leaders in Washington. In a new sign of Trump’s power Tuesday, Republican House Majority Leader Steve Scalise of Louisiana formally endorsed the former president.

And a new poll published on Tuesday by The Washington Post and the University of Maryland showed that Republican voters are becoming even less interested in holding Trump to account for January 6, 2021. While 55% of all US adults view the storming of the Capitol as an attack on democracy that never should be forgotten, 72% or Republicans think it’s time to move on. Two years ago, 27% of Republicans thought that Trump bore “a great deal” or “a good amount” of responsibility for the attack. Now, only 14% do, according to the poll, which followed months of Trump portraying those jailed over the attack as political prisoners.

While democracy is a focus of many lawmakers, experts and journalists in the political world, it’s a less tangible issue in the rest of the country, where high prices lingering from the Covid-19 pandemic, for instance, have more resonance with most voters.

The polling of Republican voters shows why Trump has found it so easy to capitalize on his multiple indictments and episodes like Colorado and Maine throwing him off the ballot. And it explains why DeSantis and Haley criticize Trump obliquely but are yet to confront him for taking American democracy to the brink.

“This went before the nation through impeachment. He got acquitted. I think January 6 is baked into the cake. I think the Jack Smith cases are not changing the political outcome in polling,” South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday, referring to the special counsel who is pursuing two federal criminal cases against the former president. “At the end of the day, Donald Trump is in a good position to win the Republican primary, because Republicans believe he had a good presidency.”

Graham’s comments reflect the prevailing sentiment among Republican voters after years of Trump’s false claims of electoral fraud and as he now accuses President Joe Biden of election interference, while painting himself as the savior of American democracy. Those claims have been pushed for three years by conservative media amid deep distrust of mainstream outlets that report what happened on January 6.

In June, Trump told his supporters that he saw his then two indictments as a “badge of honor” and that “I’m being indicted for you.” Subsequent events going into the Iowa caucuses suggest his strategy is working.

Biden’s opening

Trump may not get a similar accommodation in a general election. Biden, who’s facing dismal poll numbers and anxieties even among his own base about his age, is fashioning his bid for reelection around a claim that Trump and “MAGA Republican extremists” would pose a grave threat to democracy.

This strategy may work in some places because Trump has alienated critical swing state voters in successive national elections with his extreme behavior and rhetoric. Although with Trump leading Biden in recent battleground state polls, it’s not yet clear that playbook will be enough to secure Biden a second term.

Among the GOP, however, there is simply no constituency for attacking Trump on the issue. The one remaining candidate with visibility who is openly criticizing Trump as a threat to US values is Chris Christie. The former New Jersey governor has also lampooned Haley for her euphemistic remarks that it’s time to move on from Trump’s “chaos” and drama.

“What? What does that mean exactly, governor? Why not say it? He is not Voldemort from the Harry Potter books,” Christie said in New Hampshire on November 30. But Christie has little traction in the GOP outside the Granite State, where independent voters are especially important in choosing party nominees.

Voters – not polls – will decide whether Trump wins his third consecutive Republican nomination. And both Iowa and New Hampshire have a history of late-breaking developments that can cause upsets.

But with time running out, the inability of Haley and DeSantis to tackle his stain on American history leaves two other questions.

Why go through the exhausting, often humiliating process of running for president if you can’t use the most potent political material against him? And will the next few weeks prove that Trump was always unbeatable in the 2024 GOP race?

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