Some of the would-be Republican presidential contenders have begun distancing themselves from Donald Trump.
Three conservatives -- Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former vice president Mike Pence -- have offered guarded criticism of the twice-impeached former president, but their critiques have stood out in a GOP still dominated by Trump, reported Politico.
“You can’t run around and pretend like you’re aligned with Donald Trump anymore because you’re obviously not. You’ve taken him on, he’s taken you on,” said Republican strategist Scott Jennings. “In this case, the most authentic thing is to embrace it and to say, ‘You know what? I answered the call of service from my party. I served Donald Trump. There are some things I don’t agree with and here they are.’”
Cotton's criticism was particularly striking when he blasted Trump's criminal justice reform bill aimed at reducing the prison population, saying it was the former president's "worst mistake" and did harm to the Republican Party -- although he did praise the former president and compare him to Ronald Reagan.
Pence has been speaking out against Trump's continued lies about his election loss, and during a speech to GOP donors the former vice president took aim at the party's "apologists for Putin," which undoubtedly includes the former president -- who rebutted the accusation the following day to the same group.
“Somebody called me a ‘Putin apologist’ the other day,” Trump said. “There’s no one who’s ever been tougher on Russia than me.”
DeSantis, for his part, has criticized Trump's handling of the coronavirus, saying he wished that he had pushed back harder against the former president's backing of pandemic restrictions as COVID-19 first began spreading -- although none of these conservative critics, or Trump himself, have announced plans to run in 2024.
“The clock is ticking for anyone thinking about 2024," said GOP strategist Tucker Martin. "If you’re interested in the next cycle, you have to start defining yourself and your potential opponents."
Even though these potential challengers have pulled their punches so far against Trump, the fact that they're speaking out at all shows his dominance of the GOP may be slipping.
“While Trump is still very influential within the party, that influence diminishes more each day," said veteran GOP strategist Mike DuHaime. "It’s natural as each day moves us further from his presidency."