The GOP’s choice in 2024: Trump Ultra, Trump Lite or Trump Zero

From Politico, by Marc Caputo:

Trump, the keynote speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference, is the party’s undisputed leader at the moment, and for the foreseeable future. And whether he chooses to run again in 2024 or not, his outsized presence is likely to determine the shape of the primary.

“There isn’t a Trump lane. There’s a Trump Turnpike with multiple lanes and multiple people,” said Chris LaCivita, a veteran GOP strategist who most recently headed the anti-Biden super PAC Preserve America.

Trump Ultra

There’s a saying by some in Trump’s orbit that “if you’re with him 99 percent of the time, you’re a damn traitor” — a testament to the absolute, unwavering loyalty he demands. Those purity and loyalty tests make the Trump Ultra lane one of the toughest to run in.

A key metric for senators and representatives who expect to occupy this lane: opposition to the Jan. 6 certification of the Electoral College results that officially made him the loser and that led to the storming of the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob. That puts Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley and Florida Sen. Rick Scott — all CPAC speakers — squarely in the Trump Ultra camp.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose stock is rising rapidly in the national party, will open the conference with welcoming remarks. He sports sterling MAGA credential for his Trumpist handling of Covid and status as governor of Trump’s newly adopted home state — which the former president won twice. To this day, DeSantis refuses to publicly acknowledge that President Joe Biden was legitimately elected.

DeSantis isn’t the only governor in this category: South Dakota’s Kristi Noem, another CPAC speaker, is a dark horse candidate. Noem, who is holding a fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago on March 5, is a Fox News regular who once gave Trump a miniature Mt. Rushmore featuring his own face.

Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state known within the previous administration for his unwillingness to criticize Trump even in private, is also in this crowded group and is scheduled to speak at CPAC.

Trump Lite

The Trump Lite lane is populated by candidates who have put any daylight — however little — between themselves and the former president.

In the case of former Vice President Mike Pence, who was unceasinglyloyal to Trump for more than four years, it was his refusal to reject the Electoral College certification when he presided over the vote. That apostasy costs him among many Trump supporters. He declined an invitation to speak at CPAC.

Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, a leading voice in criticizing China — one of Trump’s signature issues — is in the same situation after voting to accept the Electoral College results. So is Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. Although Rubio carved out a niche for himself as a consistent anti-anti-Trump Republican who frequently attacks the former president’s critics, he committed the sin of mildly criticizing Trump after his two impeachments and blasted him as a primary rival in 2016.Both are scheduled to speak at CPAC.

Trump’s former United Nations ambassador, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, recently stepped out of the full Trump lane by making critical comments about her onetime boss and was promptly snubbed by the former president when she requested an audience with him at Mar-a-Lago.

Trump Zero

Jeff Roe, who advised Cruz on his 2016 presidential bid, has polled Republican primary voters extensively in recent years on what type of candidate they would support. He’s determined that the party has three distinctive lanes: a Full Trump lane, a Most Conservative lane (composed of fiscal and social conservatives) and a Most Electable lane that reflects a preference for whomever can beat the Democrats.

“If you don’t pick a lane, you will get run over,” Roe said. “Candidates who try to hold a mirror up to the electorate and say, ‘Look at me, I’m just like you,’ instead of saying, ‘This is who I am, vote for me,’ will lose. Voters want authenticity. They want leaders.”

That focus on electability is at the heart of the Trump Zero lane. It is essentially the vehicle of the anti-Trump wing, the province of those who have called out the president frequently for his rhetoric and post-election behavior, yet can single out some positive aspects of Trump’s four-year reign.

The problem is the lane might be so small that it’s not much of a path at all, said David Kochel, a longtime GOP strategist from first-in-the-nation Iowa who counts Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse among this group.

“It’s probably not even a lane,” Kochel said. “It’s more like a gravelly shoulder on the side of the mountain that’s about to crumble into the ocean.

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