‘Get in the game’: Republican candidates make their case to major donors | ET REALITY

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With less than 100 days to go before the Iowa caucuses, Donald J. Trump’s main rivals remain locked in a pitched battle both with each other and with him, raising fears that internal divisions threatened to doom efforts to find a new face. for the republican. Party in 2024.

From Dallas to Park City, Utah, top Republican donors met behind closed doors this week as talks intensified about the need to clear out the Republican field. In private remarks to donors in Utah, Nikki Haley, a former ambassador to the United Nations, delivered a strong message that it was time to choose sides and invest if there was any chance of avoiding another Trump nomination.

“Play the game,” Ms. Haley urged them, according to two people who were present at the event.

But given Trump’s enduring leadership, some political financiers are considering staying on the sidelines. For those donors who are not donors, the choice has increasingly come down to Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida and Mrs. Haley, whose fortunes have improved thanks to her performance in the first two debates. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina is also a factor, given his super PAC’s $25 million left in TV advertising bookings in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina over the next three months.

On Friday, teams of advisers to DeSantis, Haley and Scott arrived in Dallas to make separate presentations at an exclusive gathering of some of the country’s most influential Republican donors, a group known as the American Opportunity Alliance. They met at a property owned by billionaire Republican financier Harlan Crow, who has drawn attention and scrutiny for his close relationship with Judge Clarence Thomas.

Among the crowd were some of the party’s biggest contributors or top representatives, mega-donors like Paul Singer and Ken Griffin, who can spend tens of millions of dollars. And the stakes produced pointed presentations, according to more than half a dozen people who were in the room or had been briefed on the comments.

DeSantis’ team argued that any effort to remove him from the race would be counterproductive to the anti-Trump cause. Three top DeSantis campaign strategists (James Uthmeier, David Polyansky and Ryan Tyson) presented internal polls showing that 90 percent of his supporters would lean toward Trump if DeSantis dropped out of the race. Instead, they said Haley supporters would reach out to DeSantis if she left.

DeSantis’ team suggested that Trump had to be stopped in Iowa and that DeSantis was the only one in a position to do it. And they acknowledged DeSantis’ past struggles and described themselves as having struggled to reach a stronger position.

Haley’s advisers, Betsy Ankeny and Jon Lerner, showed their own internal polls, which put Haley ahead of DeSantis in New Hampshire and South Carolina and tied them in Iowa. They argued that DeSantis had plateaued and she was rising.

In a sign of the threat Ms. Haley poses to Mr. DeSantis, Never Back Down, the leading pro-DeSantis super PAC, is preparing an ad campaign against Haley and has tested several attacks, including her ties to China, according to a person familiar with the matter. Such a move would be a watershed moment, as DeSantis advisers have long insisted that the primary is a two-man contest between the governor and Trump.

Scott, whose team had not initially been invited to Dallas, was represented by Jennifer DeCasper, Zac Moffatt and Erik Iverson. They revealed that Scott would enter October with $12.6 million in primary cash on hand, more than either DeSantis or Haley.

DeCasper highlighted Scott’s toughness and willingness to stand up to Trump. She invoked when she confronted Trump about the former president’s mistakes after white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.

“We have never flown to Mar-a-Lago to kiss the ring, to ask permission for anything,” he said.

The dueling presentations underscored the degree to which the race to be the leading alternative to Trump is playing out both at donor meetings and on the ground in early states.

Haley, campaigning in New Hampshire on Friday, made explicit the power of wealthy donors to narrow the field. “I think it’s up to the voters and I think it’s up to the donors to decide which candidates should walk off the stage,” Ms. Haley said. while he filed to appear on the ballot in the state.

For months, donors have had private discussions not only about whether to collectively back a single alternative to Trump, but also about whether wealthy backers of low-polling candidates could encourage those candidates to drop out to consolidate anti-Trump support.

In recent days, Haley and DeSantis have made a series of announcements to show political pundits their respective momentum. Mr. DeSantis on Thursday announced its first advertising reservation of the race, saying he would spend $2 million in Iowa. That came a week after he began moving a third of his staff from Tallahassee to Iowa to bolster his operations in the state.

Haley launched her fundraising campaign and revealed that she had more cash on hand for the primary than DeSantis, between $9.1 million and $5 million. She also announced the opening of its first office in Iowa and the addition of two in-state staff members, bringing the total to four.

For veterans of the 2016 primaries, the obsessive focus on the race for second place is inflicting a serious sense of déjà vu.

“In October 2015, Jeb Bush was machine-gunning Marco Rubio and Rubio was going after Ted Cruz, and no one really laid a hand on Trump,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who was one of Rubio’s top advisers in the election. presidency. time.

“It’s shaping up to be a repeat of 2016,” Conant added of the current race. He said this time it was even worse for Trump’s rivals. “Now, even if you combined the poll numbers of everyone who was on the debate stage, you would still be under Trump.”

A recent Fox News national poll showed Trump at 59 percent, virtually unchanged from September. DeSantis was next closest at 13 percent, with Haley in third at 10 percent.

Still, most of Trump’s rivals tread cautiously when it comes to criticizing the former president.

On Monday, DeSantis made his first appearance on MSNBC, the type of network he had derided for years as “corporate media,” a sign of his need for oxygen and political coverage. And while he criticized how a Trump nomination would be a distraction (citing documents found near the bathrooms at Mar-a-Lago), he dodged a follow-up question about whether Americans should worry about Trump not revealing the nation’s secrets. . position at the center of the special prosecutor’s criminal prosecution.

“Well, look, I think it’s an accusation; It remains to be seen,” DeSantis began, before going on to defend Trump.

Later that week, DeSantis criticized Trump for his attack on Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel’s intelligence services for overlooking the impending Hamas terrorist attack. The issue is important to several pro-Israel and politically conservative donors, and DeSantis’ allies and advisers see it as a vulnerability for Trump.

Spencer Zwick, who oversaw Sen. Mitt Romney’s fundraising operation when he ran for president in 2012 and who organized the Utah conference, said Haley “was probably the strongest advocate” that donors should mobilize to stop Trump. of win. Other attendees included former Vice President Mike Pence, Governor Doug Burgum of North Dakota and former Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey.

“If you don’t pick a candidate, Trump will be the nominee,” Christie warned donors, according to a recording of his remarks obtained by The New York Times.

But Christie, who polled lower, urged donors not to focus on who they thought might win: “Their record shows that they don’t” know how to predict that, he said with a laugh, but on who they thought would be the winner. . best president.

“How about we try that one?” Mr. Christie said.

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