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GOP presidential hopefuls react to Trump's indictment

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In the case of former President Trump, two things can be true at once. He can be formally charged with crimes related to his attempt to overturn the 2020 election, as he was this week. And he can remain the clear front-runner for the Republican nomination in the 2024 election.

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

So far, Trump has been able to turn most of the press into very good press, at least among his supporters. This week he boasted online in all caps, I need one more indictment to ensure my election.

CHANG: So what does this mean for the Republican candidates running against Trump? Well, Republican political strategist Sarah Longwell is here to tell us. She is the founder of Republican Accountability, a group that opposes Donald Trump. Welcome.

SARAH LONGWELL: Thanks for having me.

CHANG: OK. So on the whole, can you just tell us how other Republican presidential candidates have been responding to this third indictment? What's striking you so far?

LONGWELL: Well, there's sort of tiers of candidates and how they respond. So Trump's biggest rivals, somebody like Ron DeSantis - Ron DeSantis actually rushes to Trump's defense. He uses very incendiary language. He talks about the weaponized justice system, the idea that they should be, you know, slitting throats at the deep state. And I think a lot of the candidates feel like they need to defend Trump because people like DeSantis are trying to win over his base. Now, there's another category of candidates, like Mike Pence or Asa Hutchinson or Will Hurd or Chris Christie, that tend to be much more critical of Donald Trump. I mean, Mike Pence was sort of the most interesting of the responses because he said anybody who puts himself - he didn't name Trump, but he said anybody who puts himself above the Constitution is unfit to be president, which was a pretty strong statement from Pence.

But the biggest thing is how little most of Trump's serious challengers - let's say somebody - really, the only people within even spitting distance are Ron DeSantis and then more distantly Tim Scott. And both of them have been very quick to defend him. And they often pivot to kind of a what-about. You know, what about Hunter Biden? And they talk about a two-tier justice system. And I do focus groups with two-time Trump voters almost every week. And that voice is reflected back by the voters. When I ask them, you know, what they think about these indictments, they, you know - they think that it is about people trying to get Trump because he's the most dangerous candidate.

CHANG: Let me jump in because I would like to look at those tiers a little more closely. For those candidates who are noticeably defending Trump or at least the ones who are repeating this argument that the system is rigged, how are these competitors threading the needle here, like, defending Trump while also trying to beat him in the Republican primary?

LONGWELL: Well, the answer is they're doing it poorly.

CHANG: (Laughter) OK.

LONGWELL: And I think this is why nobody has really been able to break through. You know, I think Ron DeSantis, particularly by trying to take this very aggressive tone, by taking almost a Trump-like tone in the way that he defends Trump, he doesn't seem to realize that he is not going to beat Trump by defending him or trying to sort of out-Trump Trump. And it's been a problem for him his entire campaign - is that he has never figured out a way to actually go on offense against Trump because Ron DeSantis, for some reason, made the strategic decision...

CHANG: To go for the base.

LONGWELL: ...To try to wrestle Trump for his base...

CHANG: Yeah.

LONGWELL: ...As opposed to consolidating the chunk of the party that really wants to move on from Trump.

CHANG: Well, let's talk about former Vice President Pence, which you mentioned. You know, he had that statement that you cited. You know, this serves - this indictment serves as an important reminder anyone who puts himself over the Constitution should never be president of the United States. Also, in this indictment this week, the allegations were that Trump berated Pence in January 2021, saying, you're too honest, which - I understand Pence is trying to sell some too-honest merch now, right? How's that going?

LONGWELL: I don't know what his sales look like, but I will tell you that I've been hearing from voters just for months and months in the focus groups, and there is no interest in a Mike Pence presidency. He's really in the sour spot with voters where the people who want to move on from Trump feel like he's too closely tied to Trump. And then all of the people who really like Trump think Mike Pence is a traitor. And they actually talk about Mike Pence in some of the most incendiary language. And the best most people say about him is that he's boring. And I think that there's a reason that he's polling so low when he has 100% name ID as a former vice president.

CHANG: But in the last minute that we have left, what about Pence's message that he is on higher moral ground than Trump? Because he's not the only candidate saying that. Chris Christie, Will Hurd, Asa Hutchinson - they're saying similar messages. How is that panning out for those candidates?

LONGWELL: Look. I wish - as somebody who agrees with their message vehemently, the fact is that every poll where voters are asked, do you want to see candidates criticize President Trump, or do you want to see them defend President Trump? - the voters always say what they want to see from any presidential candidate is somebody who vociferously defends Donald Trump.

CHANG: And what about independents or members of the party who are a little bit disillusioned? Are they more persuadable on this higher moral ground message?

LONGWELL: They really are. And this is where there is a big difference between the indictments and how they impact primary voters on the Republican side, where it makes Trump more popular. But for swing voters, especially the January 6 indictment and the issue of January 6, that's one of those things that really does start pulling off those swing voters.

CHANG: That is Republican strategist Sarah Longwell. Thank you so much for joining us today.

LONGWELL: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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