The pool of Republican candidates in the race for 2024 grew this week, and several of them took direct aim at former President Donald Trump, who is still the clear frontrunner.

In the past week alone, three Republicans — former Vice President Mike Pence, Former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Gov. Doug Burgum of North Dakota — made their candidacies official.

They join Trump, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, conservative radio host Larry Elder, Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida. It’s unlikely at this point that the field will get much bigger.

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While some candidates, like Christie, are taking direct aim at Trump, others, like Haley and DeSantis, are treading more carefully.

“This is a very similar situation that the Republicans faced in 2016, so the larger the Republican field gets the more it will benefit Trump as the frontrunner,” said Dr. Jay A. DeSart, a professor and chair of the History and Political Science Department at Utah Valley University, in an email.

He said that while Trump has a loyal base among conservatives, it’s currently unclear whether “he can expand his support.”

In Utah, Trump and DeSantis are neck-and-neck

Trump is leading in many national polls, like the latest one from Morning Consult, where he is ahead of DeSantis by more than 30 percentage points.

But the latest Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll shows that Trump and DeSantis are running neck-and-neck among Utah Republicans.

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Of the 421 registered Utah GOP voters surveyed, 27% said they would vote for Trump and 26% said they would choose DeSantis.

The poll was conducted by Dan Jones and Associates from May 22 to June 1. The margin of error is +/- 4.78 percentage points for Republican voters.

“This is in keeping with Utah’s history given that Trump performed miserably in the Utah Republican caucuses in 2016,” said DeSart, of the time when Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas “soundly defeated” Trump in the Beehive State. Despite Trump’s loss in the primary, he easily won the state during the 2016 and 2020 general elections.

But, said DeSart, “The fact that it is this tight demonstrates that the appetite for Trump as a nominee among Utah Republicans has not really grown that much in seven years.”

The situation is similar in the state of Iowa, where Trump had 45% support with DeSantis only two percentage points behind, at 43%, in a head-to-head contest, according to an internal poll by WPA Intelligence.

Former Vice President Mike Pence enters the race

Can other Republican candidates gain momentum against Trump?

“Pence and DeSantis likely have the most name recognition among the non-Trump candidates, but they will likely have a tough time attracting the hardcore Trump supporters,” DeSart said.

Approximately 5% of Utah Republican voters said they would support Pence, as per the Deseret News/Hinckley Institute poll.

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Pence launched his campaign on Wednesday, and he took a few jabs at Trump, his former running mate.

“When Donald Trump ran for president in 2016, he promised to govern as a conservative, and together we did just that,” Pence said, according to NBC News. “Today, he makes no such promise.”

He drew a contrast between himself and Trump by highlighting the events that transpired at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, which Pence called a “tragic day in the life of our nation.”

He accused Trump of endangering his family and those at the Capitol and said that “Trump also demanded that I choose between him and the Constitution,” as The Guardian reported.

“Now, voters will be faced with the same choice: I chose the Constitution and I always will.”

Former Vice President Mike Pence talks to journalists during an interview after speaking at an event at the Zions Bank Building in Salt Lake City.
Former Vice President Mike Pence talks to journalists during an interview after speaking at an event at the Zions Bank Building in Salt Lake City on Friday, April 28, 2023. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

DeSart said he thinks Pence “may emerge as the strongest ‘mainstream’ challenger to Trump, much like Cruz did in 2016.”

Republican candidates carefully target Trump

While Pence took Trump head-on, DeSantis didn’t mention Trump when he announced his candidacy last month on Twitter Spaces with CEO Elon Musk.

The Florida governor has positioned himself as a “drama-free” version of Trump, as Deseret News previously reported.

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Among very active members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, DeSantis received 29% support, 10 percentage points more than Trump, in the latest poll, which surveyed a total of 798 registered Utah voters.

Joshua McCrain, a political science professor at the University of Utah, cited Trump’s “moral shortcomings” as the reason behind his unpopularity among faith groups.

In a recent town hall on CNN, Nikki Haley, who earned 5% support among Utah GOP voters in the poll, carefully distinguished herself from both Trump and DeSantis.

She criticized Trump for congratulating North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on earning a seat on the World Health Organization executive board.

“I don’t think we ever should congratulate dictators,” she said. “Congratulate our friends, don’t congratulate our enemies. It emboldens them when we do that.”

Haley also took jabs at the way DeSantis handled his problems with Disney, saying he went from giving the company favorable treatment to spending “taxpayer dollars on a lawsuit,” Deseret News reported.

“Businesses were my partners in South Carolina. We didn’t always get along and luckily South Carolina is very anti-woke, but when you have a company like that, don’t bring the citizen’s taxpayer dollars into it, pick up the phone, settle it like you should.”

Christie takes Trump head on

Christie, the former New Jersey governor, took direct aim at Trump during his presidential campaign launch on Tuesday.

He ridiculed Trump’s voice and compared him to Voldemort, the villain in the “Harry Potter” series, before plainly stating his plans, according to Politico.

“I am going to be very clear — I’m going out there to take out Donald Trump. But here’s why: I want to win, and I don’t want him to win,” Christie said.

“There is one lane to the Republican nomination and he’s in front of it. And if you want to win, you better go right through him because let me guarantee something from knowing him for 22 years. He’s going to try to go through Ron (DeSantis) and Nikki (Haley) and Tim (Scott) and anyone else who stands in his way.”

Other declared candidates received varying levels of support from Utah Republicans in the poll, including Hutchinson (1%), Ramaswamy (4%) and Scott (3%).

Additionally, former Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming garnered 7% of the support, while 5% said they would pick another candidate and 16% said they didn’t know.

For Jeremy C. Pope, an author and a political science professor at Brigham Young University, “the real question will come later.”

“How quickly will the candidates who clearly don’t make it in the first few primaries get out? Who will the eventual true field be?” he said. “It won’t be several people. It will be 2 or 3.”

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