The 2024 Republican presidential race is going to be a long and drawn-out affair, if a weekend forum of potential candidates is any guide.
Trump and potential 2024 rivals generally played nice in separate speeches to the Republican Jewish Coalition, though some members of the latter group made clear they blamed Trump for the party's recent election reversals. And a few made the point more explicitly than others.
"We keep losing and losing and losing," said former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the most voluble presidential hopeful at the weekend conference held in Las Vegas. "And the fact of the matter is the reason we're losing is because Donald Trump has put himself before everybody else."
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Christie and other Republicans, including high-profile Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and ex-Vice President Mike Pence, did not say they will actually run against Trump, although former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley strongly hinted that she might.
Some noted that the Republican nomination battle is still more than a year away.
Ron DeSantis: 'I have only begun to fight'
DeSantis, whose blowout reelection win made him one of the few Republican bright spots in the midterms, talked mainly about his record in Florida, including battles against federal COVID restrictions and what he calls "woke" Democrats and corporations.
The newly reelected governor said he's going to focus on his day job before making any 2024 announcements but he said: "we've got a lot more to do, and I have only begun to fight."
Also: DeSantis did not attack Trump; nor did Trump attack DeSantis in his appearance before the Republican Jewish Coalition.
Trump sticks to attacking Biden
In an appearance via video from his home in Florida, Trump spent most of his time attacking the Biden administration, especially over Israel and Middle East policy. He spoke little about 2024, but made it clear he expects the party to re-nominate him for the presidency.
In an assertion disputed by a rising number of rivals, Trump said: "The Republican Party is a much bigger, more powerful party than it was before I got there."
During a brief Q-and-A with moderators, Trump said he did not expect to resume his practice of issuing statements by Twitter, saying he preferred his self-owned Truth Social website.
One topic that did not surface: The weekend appointment of a special counsel to lead investigations into his taking classified documents out of the White House and efforts to overturn the 2020 election loss to Biden.
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Mike Pence walks fine line with Trump
The former vice president's remarks to the Republican Jewish Coalition were like an extension of his current book tour, one in which he walks a fine line with regard to Trump.
Pence has criticized Trump, particularly his demand that the then-vice president exceed his authority and set aside the electoral votes that elected Biden on Jan. 6, 2021.
Pence has also defended Trump's record overall, and defended him on other matters. "The appointment of a special counsel is very troubling," Pence told Fox News Digital this weekend.
And yet: "I think there's a real desire for new leadership in the Republican Party," Pence told USA TODAY, though he has not yet said whether he will be one of the Republicans seeking that role in 2024.
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In an interview broadcast Sunday on NBC's "Meet The Press," Pence said "I think the American people love competition." He also said: "I'll keep you posted on whether I'm going to run or not."
Nikki Haley: I've never lost an election
None of the potential Trump Republican rivals used the conference to announce a 2024 candidacy - though Haley did broach the subject.
"A lot of people have asked if I'm going to run," Haley said, and now that the midterm elections are over "I'll look at it in a serious way."
The former South Carolina legislator and governor as well as Trump's U.N. ambassador, Haley also touted her favorite campaign credential.
"I've never lost an election," she said. "and I'm not going to start now."
Other presidential prospects went to the Las Vegas to raise their profile - none more so than Christie.
The former New Jersey governor most explicitly blamed Trump for election losses in 2018, 2020, and now 2022. The Republicans lost a Senate seat in this year's midterms; while they won control of the U.S. House, their margin may wind up at less than ten seats.
Christie said "It is time to stop whispering" about Trump, and "time to stop being afraid of any one person … I am ready for that fight."
Other possible 2024 candidates talked about themselves and barely mentioned Trump.
Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who is also mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate, did not mention Trump by name during a speech that focused on his own background.
Pompeo: 'Who knows what nicknames we might have?'
Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., told reporters after the event that he would not seek the presidency in 2024, and that he plans to seek reelection as Florida senator. "No, I'm running for the Senate."
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., who ran for president in 2016, said he too is focused on his 2024 Senate re-election bid, but did not rule out a presidential bid that year either.
"You can consider whatever you like," Cruz told reporters, adding that "there will be plenty of time" to discuss the 2024 presidential race.
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo joked about the decisions facing would-be Republican candidates - particularly the sure prospect of sharp attacks from Trump.
Speaking just ahead of Pence, Pompeo told the former vice president that it was "great to be your warm up act."
"Who knows," he added, "the next time we're together, we could be on a stage, multiple podiums. Who knows who else might be with us? ... And who knows what nicknames we might have?"
One thing everyone agreed on: It's still early.
Gov. Larry Hogan, for example, told reporters he doesn't even know if DeSantis is willing to take on Trump, and it will take months to assess.
"Six months is an eternity in politics," he said.
Hogan, who is considering a long-shot 2024 run of his own, also took a few hits at Trump: "In almost every race I've ever seen, the guy that comes out of the box first that everybody is talking about two years out is almost never the nominee."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: DeSantis, Pence, Haley, other Trump rivals play nice at donor confab