WASHINGTON - Republicans working to keep Donald Trump from becoming the GOP's presidential nominee in 2024 say the more the merrier when it comes to the number of candidates who could be competing against him.
While more than a dozen Republicans have tested the presidential waters, GOP operatives, conservative activists and potential candidates expect fewer candidates to attempt to wrestle the nomination from Trump than the first time he was on the ballot.
So many candidates sought the nomination then, the GOP held two-tier debates to fit everyone on stage. Trump won the nomination after donating millions of dollars to his own campaign and racking up delegates in states with early contests.
Republicans who want to dump Trump say the party risks failing to consolidate fast enough around an alternative candidate and winding up with Trump as its nominee again, much as they did in 2016.
"He shouldn't be underestimated. You think about the organization he has, the fundraising capability he has, the 100% name recognition that he has, the ability to attract media attention, I mean, he's obviously a very, very formidable candidate," said Asa Hutchinson, a former Arkansas governor and likely presidential contender.
"But he's a formidable candidate that history proves he cannot win in that November election."
Trump v. 'someone else'
Republicans inside and outside of Washington fear Trump will cost the party the White House - again. He has continued to promote false conspiracy theories about the 2020 election, is under federal investigation and routinely trails President Joe Biden in national polls.
Despite his waning influence, the former president continues to have the support of a plurality of primary voters when they have the option to choose among him and more than one other Republican.
A survey published by the New Hampshire Journal in January showed Trump winning 37% of Republicans in the critical early contest state. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had 26% support. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu polled at 13%.
Former Trump administration officials Nikki Haley, who served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, and Mike Pence, the former vice president, had single-digit support. Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin had zero support, and 18% of Republicans were undecided.
If the race were between Trump and "someone else," however, Republican voters in New Hampshire would split their support between the former president and his primary opponent. DeSantis, in particular, would have a nearly 2-1 advantage over Trump, a national Marquette Law Poll found.
That type of polling is making some Republicans nervous.
If it turns out that a "bunch of people, candidates that nobody really takes seriously" are on the ballot alongside Trump and DeSantis, "that makes it more possible that Trump ends up winning some of these early primaries," said David McIntosh, president of the influential Club for Growth, a conservative economic group.
"The Democrat(ic) party is always much better at this. They talk to each other," McIntosh said. "Republicans, everybody sees this as their chance to get five minutes of fame. And it doesn't cost all that much to survive through Iowa."
Potential candidates, party leaders and top operatives say Trump's early dominance is not a reason for his prospective challengers to sit the primary out. Republicans who are seriously considering a presidential bid deserve the opportunity to introduce themselves to voters and compete in debates.
Pence adviser Marc Short said he believes the "process has a way of winnowing out the strongest candidate" and that keeping the field small could backfire. "There's a natural effect that happens. If you can't show support, then money dries up," Short said.
In an interview with USA TODAY, Sununu, who just began his fourth term as New Hampshire governor, said there are no backroom conversations among possible candidates about standing down. He said he expects more candidates to announce in the next few months.
"I think there's a general understanding and appreciation, that, look, if folks are getting in the race, fine. But if you're not doing well, you've got to get out," Sununu said.
GOP primary field takes shape
Several senators floated as possible GOP candidates have already decided to pass. Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, Florida Sen. Rick Scott and Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley say they will not be 2024 presidential candidates. Hawley and Scott are first-term senators facing reelection.
Sen. Ted Cruz's seat is also up, and the Texan, who was runner-up to Trump in 2016, is not expected to compete for the presidency again.
No other major Republicans have announced bids, although several current and former governors, including Sununu, Hutchinson, Haley and Maryland's Larry Hogan, are openly exploring runs.
Haley previously said she would not run against Trump. Yet the former South Carolina governor is charging ahead with plans to formally launch her campaign on Feb. 15 in Charleston.
"It's politics. Things change. And I don't think anybody's gonna hold it against her, except for hardcore Donald Trump voters," said Katon Dawson, a former South Carolina GOP chair backing Haley.
Hogan, whose second term as Maryland's governor expired last month, said in an interview that he's "taking a close look at it" but has not made a decision. Hogan said that the political landscape is "not nearly as settled as it was."
"I'm not sure it's a smart strategy to be the first one out of the gate," Hogan said.
'No one needs to get in right now'
Some likely candidates have held off announcements because they do not want to become a battering ram for Trump, who made his first trip to New Hampshire and South Carolina as a 2024 candidate last Saturday. Trump famously cut down his 2016 opponents with unflattering nicknames. And over the weekend, he took a swipe at DeSantis, calling him "disloyal" for considering a bid.
Others are building out their campaign and fundraising operations. Several are juggling presidential ambitions with day jobs.
Florida voters just elected DeSantis to a second four-year term in the populous battleground state, where the legislative session runs through early May.
"I think that DeSantis is wisely not announcing but just building up his record in Florida," McIntosh said. "But everybody sees him positionally as the one guy who could displace Trump, could keep that base that he has, and so they're waiting for him to make an announcement."
Potential candidates such as former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who do not currently hold office have been courting voters in the early GOP primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina for nearly two years.
"You don't have to be an announced candidate to really be running and getting your name out there and being effective," Sununu said. "No one needs to get in right now."
Show me the money
But candidates can't afford to wait much longer. Most will need to be in the race by the first presidential debate to have a chance at winning the nomination. The debates will be a crucial opportunity for candidates to raise money and build up a following, Republicans say.
The first debate could take place in July in the same location as the Republican National Committee holds its summer meeting. The RNC is considering an individual donation or donor threshold to determine who gets to debate.
Building name ID also takes time, said Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump GOP strategist who has been conducting focus groups in early GOP primary states, and only DeSantis, as a "shadow presumptive frontrunner," has more of it.
Longwell said she has found that hardcore supporters of the former president are not familiar with his potential competitors. "They don't know the names of anybody else," she said. "They're not really tuned in to alternatives yet."
Trump launched his 2024 campaign in November. He emphasized in a weekend fundraising email that he was the "FIRST Republican presidential candidate to campaign in the two early primary states" and boasted that "[n]o other candidate is working this early to win every last vote."
His possible competitors panned the appearances as lackluster.
"It was a little underwhelming," Hogan said. "It wasn't really that impressive…I think he's got a lot of work to do if he wants to get to a winning campaign."
Sununu said in an interview prior to Trump's N.H. visit that most Republicans want to move on from the former president. "Clearly, he's gotten in the race at his weakest political point. It ain't getting any better for him. And there's a lot of other very good viable candidates that are out there."
Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung said in a statement that Trump continues to dominate in state and local polling, "and there is nobody who can energize the voters as he can."
"Anyone who is concerned about a repeat of 2016 is someone who does not believe in America First. President Trump is the unquestioned leader of the Republican Party and is the only person who can take back the White House in 2024," he said.
Just one former U.S. president, Grover Cleveland, has ever served two non-consecutive terms in office. But the fact that Trump maintains a large donor list and has a significant base of support gives him an early advantage, operatives said.
"GOP movers and shakers are acknowledging that we need someone that has the policies of Trump, but are not the dumpster fire that Trump is," said Alice Stewart, a GOP strategist who worked for Cruz in 2016. "Rational Republicans are realizing that we have to move on from Trump."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Who can beat Trump? GOP looks to avoid 2016 repeat in 2024 primary