How candidates are pursuing the White House without hitting the front-runners

During a radio interview last week, Ron DeSantis was asked whether he wanted to respond to some of Donald Trump’s potshots and unflattering nicknames.

The Florida governor deflected the question. “It’s silly season,” he told Fox’s Brian Kilmeade. “You know how some of this stuff goes, and obviously he does his thing and that’s kind of who he is.”

Here in the preseason, a whole lot of candidates, potential candidates and other politicians are having to make cold calculations about whether to attack or counterattack. The man Trump calls DeSanctimonious is perfectly capable of hitting back hard – especially against the media – but has chosen not to throw punches when it comes to the former president.

For one thing, DeSantis hasn’t jumped into the race yet, and – if he runs – won’t take the plunge until after his legislative session ends in May. For another, it may make little sense to start mud-wrestling this early with Trump, an acknowledged master of the insult game.


At the same time, the governor risks appearing too passive, or being defined by the 45th president, if he keeps turning the other cheek. He is trying to win the nomination without alienating the supporters of the clear front-runner, and that’s a difficult needle to thread.

Nikki Haley also seems allergic to criticizing Trump. All her talk about moving on from 20th-century politicians and mental competency tests for candidates over 75 isn’t fooling anyone, but having served as Trump’s U.N. ambassador, she too avoids any direct attack. Asked repeatedly in interviews about how her policies differ from Trump’s, she takes evasive action: “I don’t kick sideways, I kick forward” – whatever that means. 

Haley is now blaming the media, saying on the “Today” show: “You guys are obsessed with me talking about him.”

Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, asked on “Fox News Sunday” whether he’d deal with the national debt better than Trump, broadened the indictment: “I think a President Pompeo or any conservative president will do better than not only [what] we did in the four years of the Trump administration, but Barack Obama, George Bush.”

Yet when Shannon Bream asked Pompeo about his slam at CPAC against “following celebrity leaders with their own brand of identity politics, those with fragile egos who refuse to acknowledge reality,” he sidestepped the question. Hmm… what fragile ego could he be talking about?

Mike Pence has been a little more forthright in chastising Trump over the events of Jan. 6, which endangered his life as he and his family hid from the mob. But beyond that he says only “we can do better” and brags about the accomplishments of the Trump-Pence administration. Trying to have it both ways rarely works in politics.

Larry Hogan, the popular former Maryland governor, announced Sunday that he’s passing up the race. “The stakes are too high for me to risk being part of another multi-car pileup,” he says, allowing Trump to conquer a sizable field. Also, the moderate Republican had virtually no chance of winning the nomination.


We see a similar dynamic on the other side, where plenty of Democrats are quietly plotting a run in case Joe Biden decides to pass up a second term. Their problem: Biden is going to announce (probably in April), and his wife recently told the AP: “How many times does he have to say it for you to believe him?” 

But that doesn’t mean ambitious Democrats are doing nothing. Where do you think all those stories about Biden being too old and much of the party not wanting him to run are coming from? They and their operatives are behind the leaks.

The winner of the 2020 Iowa caucuses, Pete Buttigieg, would obviously like to run again – if not for the White House, then for a Senate seat in Michigan, where he recently moved. And the transportation secretary has been getting hammered for belatedly visiting the toxic train derailment in Ohio, as well as for airline meltdowns. Some of the criticism has been personal – Donald Trump Jr. called him “the gay guy” – and Buttigieg finally decided to punch back.


“It’s really rich,” he told CNN, “to see some of these folks – the former president, these Fox hosts – who are literally lifelong card-carrying members of the East Coast elite, whose top economic policy priority has always been tax cuts for the wealthy, and who wouldn’t know their way around a T.J. Maxx if their life depended on it, to be presenting themselves as if they genuinely care about the forgotten middle of the country.”

The art of politics is harder than it looks. Here we have declared and likely Republican candidates trying to defeat a former president while playing pattycake, barely uttering a cross word about him except in a kind of Beltway code. And we have potential Democratic candidates hoping the president of their party will abandon the office, and perhaps anonymously nudging him – while singing his praises in public. It’s way early, but already shaping up to be a crazy 2024 cycle.