This article was first published in the On the Trail 2024 newsletter. Sign up to receive the newsletter in your inbox on Tuesday and Friday mornings.

Good morning and welcome to On the Trail 2024, the Deseret News’ campaign newsletter.

I’m back from Milwaukee, where the first GOP presidential debate gave us a look at the field — minus the front-runner, former President Donald Trump. It was a big week for him, too (for other reasons).

Today’s newsletter includes a first glance at a new poll showing who Utah Republican voters say they plan to vote for in the primary, as well as insights from former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson — one of two candidates on last week’s debate stage who said he would not support Trump if the former president is convicted.  

The Big Idea

Attack Trump, or ignore him?

Minutes after Wednesday’s debate concluded, the Spin Room started flooding with people. In reality, the Spin Room wasn’t a room at all — it was one roped-off end of the media filing center, which itself was the garage Milwaukee Bucks players park in during games (transformed with tables, TVs, carpet and drapes).

Candidates send campaign surrogates to the Spin Room post-debate to spar with media — and, as the name suggests, to add their “spin” on why their candidate won the debate. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis sent someone from his PAC and a handful of politicians who’ve endorsed him. Vivek Ramaswamy came himself, alongside his wife, Apoorva. Mike Pence showed up, too. 

But while journalists mobbed those three, Asa Hutchinson stood in the corner, chatting leisurely with two reporters. One asked if Trump was really “ineligible” to be elected president, as Hutchinson had said during the debate. The former Arkansas governor was blunt. “The answer is yes,” he said. “But more importantly, will a secretary of state make that determination, and will the court make that determination?”

Among Republican candidates for president, Hutchinson stands alone — or close to it. He’s one of the only challengers who has consistently attacked Trump. Some candidates have suggested they’d pardon Trump if elected. Others have called his criminal charges evidence of the “weaponization” of the justice system for political gain. And in Wednesday’s debate, candidates were asked to raise their hands if they would support Trump as the party’s nominee if he were convicted in a court of law.

Only Hutchinson kept his hand down. Chris Christie hesitantly lifted his, then said he was wagging his finger to say “no.” And even Pence — who’d spent much of the debate arguing that Trump betrayed the Constitution on Jan. 6 — lifted his hand.

I asked Hutchinson what he thought about his fellow candidates’ responses. “I was surprised,” he said. “I thought more (candidates) would be clear that we need to move in a different direction.” Point taken, though wildly understated — not only were Hutchinson’s fellow candidates (save Christie and perhaps Pence) unwilling to criticize Trump, but the moderators were hesitant to even bring him up, saying they’d be “moving on” to another topic less than 10 minutes after the first Trump-related question erupted in fireworks between Christie and Ramaswamy and boos from the crowd.

“The more time we spend doing this, the less time they can talk about issues you want to talk about,” Bret Baier, one of the Fox News moderators, told the audience. “So let’s just get through this.”

What Hutchinson seems to understand — and what the other candidates are conveniently ignoring — is that any path to the party’s nomination cannot go around Trump, but through him. The former president leads most national polls by over 40 points, and a new poll in Utah — where Trump has historically faced a steeper climb than in other red states — shows him pulling away. 

The new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll of registered Republican voters in Utah suggests that although Trump’s lead in Utah is smaller than in other states, it is widening. Trump, at 27%, maintains an eight-point lead over his closest challenger (DeSantis, 19%). That’s an increase from a five-point lead in a July poll and a huge burst from an 11-point deficit last December.

No other candidates are polling in double-digits. Mike Pence sits at 9%, while Ramaswamy and former Rep. Liz Cheney — a frequent Trump critic who has not entered the race — are tied at 5%.

“All of the eight candidates on that stage are running against Donald Trump,” Hutchinson told me. “So if you’re running against Donald Trump, let’s make your case effectively.”

Hutchinson is trying. Maybe it’s a winning formula; maybe he’s shooting himself in the leg. (He’s at 2% in Utah and about 0.7% nationally.) The strategic argument against attacking Trump this early — 40-point lead or not — is the possibility of alienating Trump’s loyal base of Republican voters, which make up a huge chunk of the GOP electorate. (Polling from the New York Times/Siena College tabs the “MAGA base” — Trump’s do-or-die following — at 37% of the likely Republican electorate.)

But perhaps there is another way. A new op-ed in The Hill makes the case that fighting for the moderate middle, not the MAGA base, provides challengers the best chance of winning the nomination. “In the Trump era, playing ‘wait and see’ is a failed strategy, and someone needs to take on the challenge of attacking him and risk offending his base,” Richard Protzmann writes. “This would be unprecedented, but it is the only way forward.”

Maybe so. Maybe not. But Hutchinson seems to be the one who’s trying hardest. “I made my case,” he told me. “I think it’s important to make the case with courage, because that’s what persuades people.”

The latest from Deseret News’ 2024 election coverage

Poll pulse

Today’s must-see polls: one from Politico Magazine suggesting that Trump’s legal woes might spell trouble, and another from the Des Moines Register analyzing how many Iowa caucus-goers are self-described “MAGA Republicans.”

The Politico Magazine/Ipsos poll shows that about half of American voters think Trump is guilty of his latest charges (dealing with efforts to overturn the 2020 election). That includes 53% of independent voters, while 27% of independents are undecided. And a majority of voters want a trial before the general election (which they will get for one of the federal cases, as the trial date was set Monday for March 4, 2024).

The Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom Iowa Poll finds that nearly half of probable Iowa caucusgoers consider themselves to be “MAGA Republicans” (46%), while nearly a quarter — 23% — describe themselves as “anti-Trump.”

What I’m reading

What to watch

Prayers for Florida: A tropical storm is expected to hit Florida in the coming days, causing Ron DeSantis to declare a state of emergency for nearly half the state and potentially put his campaigning on pause. He’s already in Florida after a racially motivated shooting in Jacksonville over the weekend. We’re hoping and praying for safety for Floridians. On the campaign front, how long could the tropical storm keep DeSantis grounded at home? 

Anything you want to see from our post-debate coverage? As always, my inbox is open: onthetrail@deseretnews.com

See you on the trail.

Samuel

Editor’s Note: The Deseret News is committed to covering issues of substance in the 2024 presidential race from its unique perspective and editorial values. Our team of political reporters will bring you in-depth coverage of the most relevant news and information to help you make an informed decision. Find our complete coverage of the election here.