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Where the GOP primary stands, with Trump still front and center

Former President Donald Trump signs autographs at Trump National Golf Club on Aug. 13 in Bedminster, N.J.
Mike Stobe
Getty Images
Former President Donald Trump signs autographs at Trump National Golf Club on Aug. 13 in Bedminster, N.J.

Republican presidential hopefuls are still more than four months away from their first official contest — the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 15, 2024 — but, in many ways, the first phase of the race is already over.

With the first primary debate done and months of campaigning and fundraising in the books, it is now clear who the major candidates are and how they are each positioning themselves in the race — there's Trump himself, two anti-Trump former governors and everyone else.

Where Donald Trump stands

Despite skipping this week's debate and going through criminal processing in Georgia on state charges tied to his effort to subvert the transfer of power, the former president remains the near-prohibitive favorite to secure the Republican nomination.

"You see the polls have come out, I'm leading by 50 and 60 points," Trump said in an interview with broadcaster Tucker Carlson about his decision to sit out the debate. "And some of [my opponents] are at one and zero and two. And I'm saying, 'Do I sit there for an hour or two hours, whatever it's going to be and get harassed by people that shouldn't even be running for president? Should I be doing that?' "

Many of the expected obstacles to his campaign — namely, the four long-looming criminal investigations — are now public. The former president now faces two state trials and two federal trials.

The first state case is in New York, related to hush money payments he authorized to two women who claim to have had affairs with Trump before he was in office. The second is a wide-ranging Georgia case connected to his effort to overturn the presidential election.

The federal cases, both under the purview of special counsel Jack Smith, are related to allegations that Trump retained classified documents after leaving office and to the former president's actions leading up to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.

The public disclosure of the charges that resulted from these investigations were fundraising bonanzas for the former president.

Now, with trials not likely to begin in any of the cases until next year and the procedural wrangling in the hands of his legal team, the former president is free to focus on his comeback bid.

The two major anti-Trump candidates

At the primary debate on Wednesday, six of the eight candidates on stage said that, should Trump secure the nomination, they would support him for the presidency even if he was convicted in a court of law. The two who dissented — former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson — suggested that regardless of the trials' outcomes, Trump had already morally disqualified himself from holding office.

"It's important to say that the president said — Donald Trump said — 'It's OK to suspend the Constitution,'" Christie said. "The oath you take is to preserve, protect and defend, not suspend. I will always stand up for our Constitution, regardless of the political pressure."

Suffice it to say that this was not a popular position to hold in the auditorium where the debate was held — both candidates were booed heavily. And it is not a popular view to hold among the Republican primary electorate either.

In a July NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, 58% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say they would support Trump as their standard-bearer, though there are early signs that support may be softening, at least among independents.

While Christie and Hutchinson's skepticism of Trump is considerably more popular among the general electorate, both men — with poll numbers in the low single-digits — face a steep, precarious climb to the nomination.

Everyone else

Though Trump himself elected not to appear at the debate, Trumpism was very much present — 38-year-old businessman Vivek Ramaswamy's combative tone and embrace of far-right staples and baseless climate conspiracy theories was reminiscent of past Trump debate appearances.

"Let us be honest as Republicans. I'm the only person on the stage who isn't bought and paid for, so I can say this — the climate change agenda is a hoax," Ramaswamy said during a characteristic interruption. "The reality is the anti-carbon agenda is the wet blanket on our economy. And so, the reality is more people are dying of bad climate change policies than they are of actual climate change." (This is inaccurate. Fossil fuel pollution kills thousands each year, particularly vulnerable populations like infants.)

Ramaswamy, who found himself on the receiving end of attacks from most of the candidates on stage, also pledged a full pardon for Trump.

It remains to be seen whether the political newcomer can sustain his momentum after the debate — though he may benefit from the continued decline of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' campaign.

DeSantis, who is still running a distant second behind Trump, has seen his support crater since February. The governor has recently cut back his staffing and replaced his campaign chief, and he appears likely to face significant money challenges in the months to come.

But it is still too soon to declare the DeSantis campaign, or those of Trump's other opponents, beyond saving. The candidates have nearly a year until the Republican National Convention — and there is still a lot of race left to be run.

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Eric McDaniel
Eric McDaniel edits the NPR Politics Podcast. He joined the program ahead of its 2019 relaunch as a daily podcast.