CONROE, Texas (AP) — There was something different next to the “TRUMP WON!” ‘MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN’ t-shirts, caps and ‘LET’S GO BRANDON’ flags for sale at former President Donald Trump’s recent rally in Texas: a collection of ‘DeSantis 2024’ bumper stickers.
Nikki Rye, who lives in Florida and has been selling Trump gear at her events since 2015, said merchandise promoting her state’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis “is a very, very sought-after item.” Beyond the stickers, a life-size cutout of DeSantis stood on one side of his shop, with Trump flanking the other.
As Trump aims for a political comeback, DeSantis’ memories have signaled a shift among the MAGA faithful. While the vast majority of the more than two dozen people polled at his rally at a Texas fairground cheered the prospect of another Trump bid for the White House, some began to admit there might be challenges. better options.
And for anyone toying with an alternative to Trump, DeSantis is at the top of the list.
They were people like Kim Mitchell, 62, who lives in Canyon Lake, Texas, and was thrilled to see Trump in person. She and her husband are longtime supporters; a Trump flag hangs proudly in his car garage. And if Trump pulls off another run, they both say they’ll support him.
But Mitchell said she could see the benefits of a less polarizing alternative.
“You know, there are several people there who seem to have the same beliefs as him. And people don’t hate them,” she said, blaming Biden’s victory on a combination of voter fraud — which election officials and the courts have dismissed — and the visceral aversion Trump inspires. “I hate to say that because I feel like I’m being disloyal.”
But she is not alone.
A recent Associated Press-Center for Public Affairs Research poll found that while 71% of Republicans have a favorable view of Trump, a smaller percentage — 56% — want him to run again in 2024. The poll revealed that 44% of Republicans do. doesn’t want Trump to show up.
Meanwhile, a recent NBC poll found that, by a 20-point margin, Republicans now identify more as Republican Party supporters than Trump supporters – a reversal in sentiment ahead of the 2020 election.
Longtime GOP pollster Frank Luntz, who has run voter opinion focus groups, said Republicans have fractured into three distinct blocs: those who left Trump, those who “will follow him in ‘a cliff’ and those who ‘really appreciate it’. , follow him, are still strongly in favor of him,” but are looking for another option.
“He still has a core of about a third to 40% who will vote for him no matter what,” Luntz said. “But it is now a minority. It was the majority until six months ago. But it is now the minority.
The cracks in support are forming as Trump often seems more interested in reviving the 2020 election than focusing on issues affecting voters’ daily lives, like inflation. It could provide an opening for someone like DeSantis, who has molded himself into the Trump mold but has less baggage in national politics.
“I heard about that guy from DeSantis. He would be a good next to run,” said Kathy Miguez, 58, who lives in Dayton, Texas, and works at a grocery store. “From what I hear, he sounds a lot like Trump.”
Over the past two years, DeSantis has skillfully used the COVID-19 pandemic as a springboard to GOP stardom by portraying Florida as a beacon of freedom, even as public health experts have called his reckless and dangerous hostility to basic public health precautions.
He has leaned more into policies that energize the GOP base as he runs for re-election, pledging to create a law enforcement agency to investigate alleged election crimes and pushing a bill to a law that would prohibit schools and businesses from making white people feel “uncomfortable” when they teach students or train employees about discrimination.
Representatives for Trump and DeSantis did not respond to requests for comment on this story. But people close to the former president say he is keeping a close eye on the governor, even though both men have dismissed discussions of the tension as a media creation.
Trump, who takes credit for DeSantis’ victory as governor, was vexed by DeSantis’ refusal to rule out a 2024 race if Trump moves forward, according to people familiar with his thinking.
The gambling spirit has recently come to light, with Trump slamming politicians like DeSantis who refuse to disclose whether they received COVID-19 booster shots as ‘gutless’. DeSantis, in turn, said one of his biggest regrets in office was not speaking out stronger against the COVID-19 precautions Trump advocated at the start of the pandemic. Trump has since largely avoided mentioning vaccinations, instead spending time railing against mandates.
Trump is still the overwhelming favorite of GOP voters and all signs suggest the 2024 nomination is his if he wants it. Its policy committee announced on Monday that it has more than $122 million in cash, having raised more than $50 million in the second half of last year. And he still manages to draw crowds of several thousand to distant fairgrounds more than a year after stepping down from elective office.
But so far, Trump has maintained a vise-like grip on the party base, making any cracks in support noticeable. The openness to other candidates underscores how Trumpism is no longer a one-man personality cult, but a broader movement that includes candidates like conspiracy Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who have adopted Trump’s policy positions and reproduced his attention. grabbing tactics.
That includes, for now, DeSantis, whom many see as a potential 2024 Trump running mate and 2028 presidential candidate.
“I think Trump is paving the way for DeSantis to run in 2028,” said Thor Pearson, 32, who lives in El Paso. “And I would be absolutely happy because DeSantis is a great Republican. I think he does everything well.
Of course, there are others on the sidelines, like a woman who insisted that Trump would be reinstated as president “immediately.” Others argue, against reality, that he is currently President of the United States.
But most remain all-in on Trump in 2024.
” We hope. We pray,” he runs in 2024, said Janice Shelton, 55, who lives in Austin and said Trump was the best option because “he’s already proven himself.”
“DeSantis will never draw a crowd like this. He never will,” she said.
” It is obvious. He’s going to run 100%,” echoed Jonathan Riches, 45, of Tampa, Fla., who was attending his 41st Trump rally after sleeping in his rental car overnight. Riches said he would support any future nominee who receives Trump’s endorsement, but thinks DeSantis “will be president one day, for sure.”
“I think Trump is going to pass the baton to him,” he said, adding that it “might be possible in 2024.”
And many argue that Trump is the best possible candidate.
“We love Ron DeSantis. … But to get us out of the hole we’re in now, I think we need Trump to show up again,” said Susan Roland, 63, who lives in Sugarland, Texas, and was among hundreds of Trump supporters who demonstrated outside. the United States Capitol during the January 6 insurrection.
“I think he is the only one with the courage to put our country back together,” echoed her husband, Perry, 62.
Looking ahead, Mitchell of Canyon Lake said, “I think Donald Trump will do what’s best for our nation. And if he is not running for president, it is because he is very involved in what is happening. »
“It has to be someone who really believes in Trump and will listen to Trump, even if he’s just whispering in their ear and telling them,” she added. “I like to think of Trump as the one in the back, you know, pushing everybody up.”