NEW YORK (AP) — They are meeting with campaign donors and giving frequent interviews on cable news. They’re delivering speeches in early voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire and hobnobbing with local Republican groups. Some are even quietly discussing campaign jobs with political operatives.
But don't call them presidential candidates — at least, not yet.
From Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to former Vice President Mike Pence and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, there appears to be little rush to join the field of official presidential candidates. The reluctance reflects the unsettled nature of U.S. politics as Republicans game out whether Donald Trump will maintain his grip on the party, particularly if a criminal indictment is leveled against the former president in New York as early as this week.
While such a move would mark a historic moment in American politics, the presidential campaign still moves forward with the first debates slated for August and Iowa's leadoff caucuses less than a year away. That, some Republicans say, means that most candidates can't linger too long.
For any Republican candidate right now, “If your name isn’t Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis, you start really far behind,” said Scott Jennings, a Republican political strategist. “If you’re one of these folks that’s kind of looking at it, you don’t really have the luxury of time.”
At this point during the last presidential election in 2020, more than 15 Democrats had jumped into their party’s open presidential race, animated by a desire to defeat Trump. But as Republicans aim to regain the White House, just three major candidates have officially come forward, including Trump. He's joined by former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.
Beyond navigating the political fallout of an indictment, some candidates may also be weighing the potency of attacks from Trump. DeSantis, who is seen as Trump's strongest rival and is widely expected to run, has already attracted derisive nicknames and criticism from the former president despite having not announced a campaign.
After largely remaining quiet, DeSantis is beginning to step up his response to Trump, criticizing the former president's leadership in an interview with British journalist Piers Morgan.
“At the end of the day, as a leader, you really want to look to people like our Founding Fathers,” DeSantis said. “It’s not saying that you don’t ever make a mistake in your personal life, but I think, what type of character are you bringing?"
DeSantis already has broad name recognition and goodwill among the Republican Party’s base for the way he steered his state through the coronavirus pandemic and championed conservative causes on issues around race, gender identity and immigration. That gives DeSantis the most time to wait, GOP political strategists say, but others need to start raising money pretty quickly, building out the complex machinery of a presidential campaign and hiring workers.
“There is not an unlimited supply of quality staff,” said Republican strategist Jesse Hunt, who worked on the 2016 presidential campaign of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
Hunt said White House hopefuls who currently hold elected office tend to already be generating some media attention and have a bit more time to wait.
“If you’re struggling to get that sort of attention, it behooves you to jump into the race early,” Hunt said.
Beyond raising money and getting their names out there, candidates need enough time to win the support of voters.
“There’s a difference between getting your name out there and actually building up trust with these voters,” Jennings said. “You build that up over time.”
Some potential candidates have been working on that for a few months, even without announcing a decision.
Pence, Scott, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson have all acknowledged they’re each considering a campaign, have been making visits to states that will vote first on the party’s presidential nominee next year, and have had discussions with political operatives about job openings.
Pence and Hutchinson are expected to announce decisions in the coming weeks. It’s widely anticipated that Scott will soon make his decision known, and Pompeo said in an recent interview with The Associated Press that he would make a decision “within a couple of months."
Other possible candidates have been slower to make moves.
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin has taken quiet but steady steps to raise his profile, stepping up his national media appearances, including appearing in a primetime townhall on CNN, and has resumed out-of-state travel that includes a recent trip to New York City to meet with influential Republican donors and political figures. He's set to make appearances next month to speak to the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Texas.
But Youngkin has not yet scheduled visits to early presidential nominating states this year or had conversations with prospective campaign staffers in those states. Every time he’s asked if he plans to run for president in 2024, he gives a similar response, saying he’s “very humbled” by the question but is focused on his on his state, where he’s still working with the legislature to wrap up a budget.
DeSantis, who is expected to hold off on any announcement of a potential campaign until legislative business is wrapped up in his state, has only recently started holding events in early voting states Iowa and Nevada.
His meetings with donors and outreach by his allies to potential staff prompted Trump’s supporters last week to file a complaint with Florida ethics officials, accusing DeSantis of being “a de facto candidate for president of the United States” and running a “shadow” presidential campaign, which a DeSantis spokeswoman called “frivolous and politically motivated.”
Launching before the Florida Legislature adjourns May 5 would be disadvantageous because his moves as governor are precisely what drew voters to him, said former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who is now heading up Never Back Down, a super PAC aimed at encouraging DeSantis to run.
"There’s no way he should do this before session ends, until he’s gone through all that legislation, whatever vetoes they’re going to have,” Cuccinelli said. “He’s got to work his way through all of that. I think that makes perfectly good sense, and then probably just catch his breath before the world’s longest, most intense sprint.”
Associated Press writer Meg Kinnard in Columbia, S.C., contributed to this report.