Donald Trump's public flirtation with the 2024 presidential race is complicating early stage campaigning for other Republicans who are criss-crossing the country to get an edge on their potential competition and pick up voters from Trump's loyal and expansive base.
While a bulk of the political focus has been on the upcoming midterm elections, a group of GOP lawmakers have begun to position themselves as viable picks to lead the party.
Several key favorites, such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis; former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley; Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla; and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem have already appeared at highly publicized conferences in Nevada and Iowa. Just this week, former Vice President Mike Pence made the rounds in New Hampshire, site of the nation's first primary, fresh off an appearance in Washington, D.C.
Despite their early legwork, nearly all of major 2024 contenders have been unable to definitively declare their ambitions due to one major setback: Trump. A Quinnipiac University poll from October showed 78% of Republicans want Trump to run in 2024, which could easily disrupt a primary cycle full of his allies and former staff.
The former president's continued political ambitions are clear, but what's less certain is how those ambitions will manifest. Trump's political travel has been limited to his own properties or the occasional arena-style rally, swapping out typical campaign trail cattle calls for phone calls to radio and television stations from the comfort of his home in Mar-a-Lago. In some of these interviews, Trump himself counted his allies out.
During a call with radio host Hugh Hewitt earlier this week, Trump declined to name a successor if in fact he doesn't run for president, but said his base "will be very angry" if he decides to remain a private citizen. He told Hewitt he'd chime in with a potential successor -- whether it be another Republican or himself -- in about a year and quickly shifted the conversation to his high approval ratings and President Joe Biden's poor performance. In another radio interview this week, Trump told local Florida host Brian Mudd that he's confident DeSantis will not run if he does.
Trump's position is a threat to many Republican hopefuls, and potentially recreates a dynamic many party candidates found themselves in during the crowded and chaotic 2015 GOP presidential primaries. Then, several candidates undercut Trump's legitimacy, ultimately undercutting their own potential and leaving a clear runway for Trump to clinch the nomination, Republican strategist Sarah Isgur explained to ABC News.
"Each campaign thought at some point Trump will be out of the race and then it would really be down to them and fill-in-the-blank Republican candidate," said Isgur, a staff writer at the Dispatch and ABC News contributor. "If Republicans approach 2024 with the same attitude of wait and see without any sort of strategic vision, they'll repeat the same mistakes as before and that will inure to Trump's benefit."
Isgur said the primary field is "Trump's to decide" and he is likely a shoe-in if he runs.
"The only way that Trump doesn't become the nominee is if Republican candidates can put their egos aside and circle around one alternative instead of divvying up the field," Isgur said. "The problem is ... is [anyone] willing to step aside and put their chips in with someone else? Maybe. But it's hard to imagine."
Several high-profile Republican lawmakers with rumored presidential ambitions have signaled their willingness to bend the knee on Trump's behalf. DeSantis and Haley both stated they would make way for a Trump candidacy. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott said he would "of course" support Trump. A spokesperson for Noem's office confirmed to ABC News in an emailed statement that she has "no intention of running for president" and "hopes that President Trump runs again and would gladly support him."
Scott's office pointed ABC News to the senator telling Politico he has no plans to run for president.
But others have remained far more coy, leaving a potentially nasty and personal political battle on the table.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a vocal critic of the former president's handling of the 2020 election, told CNN's Dana Bash that he's unsure if he or Trump will run, "but in the end, in 2021, the idea of making predictions for 2024 is a folly. There's no reason to create tumult in a party that already has a lot of tumult in it."
Pence told Christian Broadcast Network's David Brody that he'll "let the future take care of itself" when asked about his plans in 2024 if Trump also decides to run. Then, later in the week, Pence continued to hold his cards close, telling CNN: "I can honestly tell you in 2023, my family and I will do what we have always done. We'll reflect, we'll pray and determine where we might best serve. And we'll go where we're called."
There's some precedent for love lost between the pair. Recent revelations from ABC News Chief Washington Correspondent Jonathan Karl show Trump exacerbating his split with his former vice president, defending chants from Jan. 6 insurrectionists to "hang Mike Pence."
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who shares a curious personal history with Trump, said in January 2021 that he's "certainly looking" at a 2024 bid. Before the two were at odds during the 2016 election, Cruz considered Trump a "friend." Tides shifted quickly once the pair hit the debate stage with Trump dubbing him "Lyin' Ted." Cruz eventually endorsed Trump and praised his administration's policies from his perch on Capitol Hill.
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is yet another name on the running list of former Trump allies who have signaled openness to taking him on, telling Fox News host Sean Hannity he's "always up for a good fight."
Isgur said she finds it difficult to see a sustainable path to the presidency for any of Trump's allies if he's in the mix as a candidate. Christie could dominate the anti-Trump lane, she said, but struggles to see any other current contender embracing that lane.
"That doesn't mean that Trump can't do something to turn voters off," said Isgur. "[Trump voters] are open to another candidate, but does that candidate really exist when they get to know him? I hear a lot of voters talk about Ron DeSantis, but they haven't seen him tested. They haven't seen him up against Trump. In the end, if Trump runs, really throws his hat in the ring, what's the upside to this? Having body blows from Trump may just not be worth it."