Criss-Crossing the ’24 Campaign Trail, Before the Campaign Is Official

Two months ago, Senator Tim Scott stood before cameras and reporters in South Carolina, leaning heavily on his biography and the Civil War history of his native Charleston for a soft launch of a presidential campaign.

Fast-forward to Wednesday in Iowa, where Mr. Scott announced a presidential exploratory committee, and the soft launch remained just as soft.

If his video announcement sounded familiar — with a remembrance of the battle of Fort Sumter at the start of the Civil War, recollections from his rise from poverty and a denunciation of the politics of racial division — it should have. After two months, his campaign argument had not changed, nor had an actual campaign — he still is not a candidate.

Mr. Scott’s reluctance to officially join the 2024 Republican field is shared by others who are wary of the front-runner, former President Donald J. Trump. While Mr. Scott explores, Ron DeSantis delays, Mike Pence procrastinates and Mike Pompeo ponders, all hoping that forces beyond the voters will derail Mr. Trump’s third run for the White House without their having to engage in combat with the pugnacious ex-president.

“They see the writing’s on the wall — Trump is going to win the primary,” said Al Baldasaro, a Republican former state lawmaker in New Hampshire and an outspoken Trump fan. “Maybe they’re hoping he’ll go to jail or get fined or something, but it’s not going to stop him.”

Who’s Running for President in 2024?

The race begins. Four years after a historically large number of candidates ran for president, the field for the 2024 campaign is starting out small and is likely to be headlined by the same two men who ran last time: President Biden and Donald Trump. Here’s who has entered the race so far, and who else might run:

Donald Trump. The former president is running to retake the office he lost in 2020. Though somewhat diminished in influence within the Republican Party — and facing several legal investigations — he retains a large and committed base of supporters, and he could be aided in the primary by multiple challengers splitting a limited anti-Trump vote.

Nikki Haley. The former governor of South Carolina and U.N. ambassador under Trump has presented herself as a member of “a new generation of leadership” and emphasized her life experience as a daughter of Indian immigrants. She was long seen as a rising G.O.P. star but her allure in the party has declined amid her on-again, off-again embrace of Trump.

Vivek Ramaswamy. The multimillionaire entrepreneur and author describes himself as “anti-woke” and is known in right-wing circles for opposing corporate efforts to advance political, social and environmental causes. He has never held elected office and does not have the name recognition of most other G.O.P. contenders.

Asa Hutchinson. The former governor of Arkansas is one of a relatively small number of Republicans who have been openly critical of Trump. Hutchinson has denounced the former president’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election and said Trump should drop out of the presidential race.

President Biden. While Biden has not formally declared his candidacy for a second term, he is widely expected to run. But there has been much hand-wringing among Democrats over whether he should seek re-election given his age. If he does run, Biden’s strategy is to frame the race as a contest between a seasoned leader and a conspiracy-minded opposition.

Marianne Williamson. The self-help author and former spiritual adviser to Oprah Winfrey is running for a second time. In her 2020 campaign, the Democrat called for a federal Department of Peace, supported reparations for slavery and called Trumpism a symptom of an illness in the American psyche that could not be cured with political policies.

Others who might run. Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, former Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina and Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire are seen as weighing Republican bids for the White House. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a longtime vaccine skeptic, filed paperwork to run as a Democrat.

The situation for Republicans has helped give rise to several unofficial White House runs that increasingly look and sound like official White House runs.

Mr. DeSantis, Mr. Trump’s biggest rival, will be in New Hampshire on Thursday to meet the voters who will cast the first ballots in the Republican primaries next year — although still technically as governor of Florida, and not as a declared candidate for president.

Mr. Pence, Mr. Trump’s former vice president, will swing by the National Rifle Association’s annual conference in Indianapolis at the end of the week before visiting a Republican National Committee donor conference in Nashville — still not as a candidate.

Mr. Pompeo, the former secretary of state, has been making the rounds in early-voting states — just not as a candidate. And former Representative Mike Rogers was a long way from his native Michigan when he found himself chatting about current events last week in New Hampshire — as a very concerned citizen.

The so-called shadow campaign ahead of the Republican primary contest is not all that unusual, but the odd minuet of 2023 has one unique characteristic — the noncandidates are not shadowboxing one another, but the first declared candidate, Mr. Trump.

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“The new dynamic now compared to ’11 or even ’07 is that everyone recognizes that when you enter the ring you’re in the cross hairs of Donald Trump,” said Alice Stewart, an aide to Michele Bachmann’s presidential campaign in 2012, who counseled potential candidates to line up their money, infrastructure and message before declaring their candidacies. “The safe space is to be in the early states but not necessarily in the race until you’re ready.”

Mr. Trump’s decision to make his candidacy official and early — in November, just after the midterm elections — did not clear the field, as he might have hoped. His ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, formally announced her entry into the Republican race in February. Vivek Ramaswamy, a multimillionaire entrepreneur and author, jumped in a week later. Asa Hutchinson, the former governor of Arkansas and a Trump critic, entered the fray this month.

“I said all along it’s important for the Republican Party to have an alternative to Donald Trump,” Mr. Hutchinson said on Wednesday. “I don’t think it’s a time to hunker down for our party or our country. It’s a time to engage.”

But Mr. Trump’s hold on the core Republican voter base and the Republican National Committee’s new winner-take-all primary rules have kept his most formidable rivals circling the runway, awaiting signals that the turbulence has cleared, said Donna Brazile, who was Al Gore’s presidential campaign manager in 2000.

It was evident on Wednesday in Mr. Scott’s appearance on the Fox News morning show “Fox & Friends,” when Mr. Scott, the only Black Republican senator, was pressed to explain how he would beat Mr. Trump to the nomination.

“If we focus on our uniqueness, we focus on our path to where we are, I believe we give the voters a choice so that they can decide how we move forward,” he answered. “As opposed to trying to have a conversation about how to beat a Republican, I think we’re better off having a conversation about beating Joe Biden.”

In the shadow campaign, meanwhile, the maneuvering goes on. Mr. DeSantis has one clear advantage: a national infrastructure, said Ron Kaufman, a longtime Republican presidential strategist and a confidant of Mitt Romney’s in 2012. Jeff Roe, a former aide to Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, has signed on with Mr. DeSantis’s super PAC, Never Back Down PAC, where he can bring to bear the infrastructure of his multistate firm Axiom Strategies.

But he still needs to declare.

By historical standards, it is still early. The last competitive Republican presidential race came in 2016, and by this time there were two major candidates, Mr. Cruz and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, and Mr. Trump, the eventual nominee, did not declare until June 2015.

The wide-open primary of 2012 included May 2011 announcements by former Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and Herman Cain, a former pizza executive. But the eventual nominee, Mr. Romney, did not join the pack until June, and Rick Perry, who at the time was the governor of Texas, waited until that August.

The difference this year is that the front-runner is setting the pace.

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