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Ranking the GOP’s top 10 presidential candidates

February 23, 2023
| The Hill by Niall Stanage

Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley this week became the second major Republican candidate for president in 2024, joining former President Trump in a field that is sure to grow.

Other potential candidates, including former Vice President Mike Pence and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, are hinting that they could also declare soon.

Enormous speculation is swirling around Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is widely seen as Trump’s most serious rival within the GOP and is reportedly beginning to staff up for a presidential bid.

With the race heating up, where do the contenders stand?

Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley this week became the second major Republican candidate for president in 2024, joining former President Trump in a field that is sure to grow.

Other potential candidates, including former Vice President Mike Pence and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, are hinting that they could also declare soon.

Enormous speculation is swirling around Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is widely seen as Trump’s most serious rival within the GOP and is reportedly beginning to staff up for a presidential bid.

With the race heating up, where do the contenders stand?

1. Former President Trump

In The Hill’s most recent previous rankings, in early January, Trump had dropped to second place behind DeSantis.

Back then, he was suffering through an especially bad period that had begun with poor performances by his endorsees in November’s midterms and was followed by a lackluster campaign launch.

Trump’s position has stabilized since then. In the polls, he is still the candidate to beat.

In addition, Haley’s entry underscores the possibility of a large field of contenders — something that would help Trump enormously. Trump reacted to Haley’s announcement by telling Fox Digital “the more the merrier” — which is certainly true, as a political reality, for him.

Trump does face significant challenges, including the lingering fear among some Republicans that he is an electoral drag on the party.

Then there are the numerous legal threats, including special counsel Jack Smith’s investigation into events around Jan. 6., 2021, and Trump’s possession of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago.

Trump got an unexpected assist on the classified documents when President Biden and Pence both got caught in possession of broadly similar information — though they cooperated far more promptly with authorities in returning those documents than Trump did.

Still, the facts remain stark. Trump leads in virtually every poll, he can raise money with ease and his base is as fervent as ever.

2. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis

If DeSantis were able to get Trump in a one-on-one electoral battle, he could very plausibly beat the former president.

Even in a multicandidate field, he is by far the biggest threat to Trump — a reality backhandedly revealed by Team Trump’s growing attacks on him.

DeSantis has enormous appeal to the GOP base. Many Republican voters are enthused about his combative approach to liberals and the media, his eager embrace of “culture war” issues and his perceived ability to move his political agenda forward with none of Trump’s self-defeating chaos.

Critics say DeSantis has not yet proven he can take a punch.

But if he enters the race, it will be the start of an epic battle.

3. Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley

Haley had a near-flawless rollout to her campaign this week, announcing her candidacy with a slick video, holding her first event at a well-attended rally in her native South Carolina the next day and bathing in media attention.

Haley even got an unintentional assist from CNN, where 56-year-old anchor Don Lemon made comments that sparked outage about the 51-year-old former South Carolina governor being past her “prime.” Lemon later expressed regret about his “inartful” language.

Haley, unlike many other potential rivals to Trump and DeSantis, has a distinctive appeal.

The daughter of Indian immigrants and a candidate who would become the first female presidential nominee in her party’s history if she won, she hopes to expand the GOP’s appeal.

In her launch video, she noted that Republicans had lost the popular vote in seven of the past eight presidential elections.

But Haley is also distrusted by the Trump wing of the party — and it’s far from clear that the primary electorate of today’s GOP would prefer her more modulated political approach over his.

4. Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas)

Whether he will do so is much more doubtful, however. One key complication is that Cruz is up for reelection to the Senate in 2024.

Cruz could choose to try to secure another six-year term in the Senate, while keeping his powder dry for a future presidential race.

Cruz, at 52, is almost a quarter-century younger than Trump, so he has time on his side.

Still, the presidential bug doesn’t easily leave ambitious figures like Cruz alone.

If he gets in the race, he will hope his deep conservatism and taste for political combat will power him past both Trump and DeSantis.

5. Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.)

Scott is one of the most intriguing potential candidates for the GOP in 2024.

His low-key, affable demeanor has led Beltway pundits to underplay the chances of him even launching a White House run.

But he is certainly making a lot of moves that follow the template for any would-be candidate. Just this week, he added a second stop to a scheduled trip to Iowa later in the month.

The Wall Street Journal, citing “people familiar with his plans,” reported on Feb. 13 that Scott was “taking steps to run for president.” And he has recently bolstered the leadership of his super PAC.

Scott, the sole Black Republican senator, has at times been critical of Trump, especially on racial matters, without ever definitively breaking with the former president.

Scott has a conservative voting record, a compelling personal story and at least some history of trying to work across the aisle — he and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) devoted many months to a search for bipartisan police reform, though it was unsuccessful in the end.

6. Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin

A presidential run would be an enormous undertaking for Youngkin, who only began his political career in 2021.

But his victory in Virginia’s gubernatorial race that year laid down a roadmap for Republican politicians in competitive states.

Youngkin placed enormous emphasis on education — specifically, the right of parents to be more involved in decisionmaking, including around the academic curriculum.

The issue has become a rallying cry for the GOP.

Youngkin was also politically nimble, neither entirely embracing nor disavowing Trump.

In the end, he beat Democrat Terry McAuliffe in a state Biden had carried by 10 points just 12 months previously.

There are real doubts that Youngkin will jump into the race, however. He has made few moves to suggest a bid is imminent.

7. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott

Abbott, beginning his third term as governor of a huge state, should be a serious contender.

Abbott is perhaps best known nationally for his tough stances on migration, though critics to his left accuse him of “stunts” for his deployment of the Texas National Guard to the border and his tactic of transporting migrants to other states.

Abbott is often underrated politically. His reelection victory in November saw him dispatching one-time Democratic rising star Beto O’Rourke with ease.

The problem for Abbott, if he runs, is DeSantis.

The Florida governor has a very similar approach and agenda — and he has drawn far more support to his side.

8. Former Vice President Mike Pence

Pence has been very public about the fact that he is mulling a run. Just this week, he traveled to Iowa, where he held a rally focused on parents’ rights in Cedar Rapids.

Pence has deep roots among Christian conservatives, and the Iowa caucuses would be critical for him.

He has a clear vulnerability, however. In opinion polls, he has notably higher disapproval ratings among Republican voters than most other potential GOP contenders.

Those numbers are surely a legacy of Pence’s refusal to back Trump’s illegal plan to overturn the 2020 election, and his subsequent criticism of the former president.

But, as a fact of political life, that history makes it hard to see a realistic path for him to become the GOP’s 2024 nominee.

9. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo

Pompeo told The Hill in a video interview earlier this week that he was not yet leaning one way or another as he and his family mull a presidential bid.

“There’s no lean,” he said. “It’s kind of binary. It’s a zero or one.”

In the same interview, Pompeo promised a substantive campaign in which, he said, “We’ll go make arguments. It’s not about tweets, it’s not about noise, it’s not about ‘owning the libs.’ It’s about presenting a rational argument about how to get our government to function.”

Pompeo has a hard-hitter’s resume. Prior to being Trump’s secretary of State, he was director of the CIA. Before that, he served three full terms representing Kansas’s 4th Congressional District in the House.

The problem for Pompeo, if he goes ahead with a campaign, will be how to distinguish himself from other candidates.

It’s simply not clear what his unique selling point is.

10. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem

Many campaign cycles throw up a dark-horse candidate who unexpectedly gathers momentum.

Noem could end up filling that role in 2024.

She is closely in sync with the MAGA wing of the party, in part due to her early and vigorous opposition to coronavirus-related mandates. This week, she told the libertarian Cato Institute that states that pursued more restrictive polices had been engaged in a “power grab that frankly in this country should be alarming to us.”

Noem is an accomplished media performer. And, for Republican voters who find the idea of a female nominee particularly appealing, she is more of a firebrand than Haley.

She suffers somewhat because her home state is so far removed from major media markets — and from the cities where most big GOP donors are based.

But she is adept at gaining national attention. In recent months, she became one of the first and most prominent GOP critics of TikTok, the Chinese-owned social media app that is the focus of numerous fears regarding data privacy and national security.

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