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The Memo: Trump’s rivals battle for attention



For any Republican primary candidate not named Donald Trump, getting attention is the name of the game — at least for now. 

Given former President Trump’s commanding lead in national polls and his propensity to drive news cycles, it’s vital for his challengers to simply keep themselves in the news.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, widely seen as Trump’s most serious challenger, has gotten into fractious exchanges in the past few days, first with a reporter and later with a heckler, that were swiftly amplified by the main super PAC supporting his candidacy.

Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley drew her share of attention earlier in the campaign cycle with a proposal to mandate cognitive tests for people 75 and older who are seeking elected office. It was a not-so-subtle jab at Trump, 76, and President Biden, 80.

More recently, long-shot contender Vivek Ramaswamy caused a stir when he suggested raising the voting age to 25 — except for young adults who committed to military service, worked as first responders, or who could pass a civics test. 


Ramaswamy, a 37-year-old entrepreneur, has used such moves to at least find some degree of support in public polls.

Broadly speaking, the more marginal the candidate, the more ostentatious their attention-seeking tactics need to be. For those long-odds contenders, it is better to take a risky swing than to sink quietly into near-invisibility.

The latter fate afflicts some candidates almost every cycle. 

The presidential bids of the likes of Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) in 2020, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) in 2016 or Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) in 2008 are barely remembered, even by political obsessives. A similar fate could conceivably await the likes of former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) this year.

Finding headline-grabbing moves that don’t descend into gimmickry can be a difficult task, however.

“That’s the problem,” said Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist who has worked on numerous presidential campaigns through the years. “You have to say or do something to get attention. But, you know, you can pour gasoline on yourself and light a match — that’ll get attention, but you’ll be dead.”

Trippi contended that Ramaswamy’s voting age proposal was the kind of idea that would ultimately backfire, even if it draws some notice.


“You can make a lot of news saying, ‘Raise the voting age to 25’ — but it ultimately loses you a lot more votes than it gets you,” Trippi said.

Then again, to fail to play the attention-grabbing game can lead to plausible candidates being defined on terms other than their own.

The early days of Sen. Tim Scott’s (S.C.) campaign, for example, have been memorable for little except the candidate’s difficulty in articulating exactly where he stands on abortion.

The challenges are all the higher this year for other candidates because Trump casts such a long shadow and because DeSantis is so far ahead of the rest of the chasing pack.

In the weighted national polling average maintained by data site FiveThirtyEight, Trump scored about 54 percent support as of Saturday evening, and DeSantis stood at 21 percent. Beyond those two, former Vice President Mike Pence, Haley, Ramaswamy and Scott were bunched together at 5 percent or less.

Pence has not yet formally declared but is expected to make his candidacy official this week.

There is, of course, a longer, more patient route to success than a quick grab for the headlines. The first-to-vote states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina can provide a launching pad for candidates to emerge from relative obscurity.


But even then, it is important to find a message that can at least draw voters’ attention.

Those early states “are uniquely set up for retail politics,” said Hogan Gidley, who worked on the 2012 campaign of former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and the 2016 bid of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) before winding up as deputy press secretary in the Trump White House. “They are small, voters talk to each other, you can catch fire more easily in one of those three early primary states than many other places in the country.”

Gidley, now the senior adviser for strategic communications at the America First Policy Institute, added:

“You don’t need necessarily gimmicks, outlandish comments, wild or empty promises. You need to put in the work. The people of Iowa appreciate you coming to them, letting them vet you at the local level — and oftentimes those living rooms or diners with 10 to 12 people can turn into throngs of hundreds, if not thousands, at every stop.”

Still, grabbing some headlines and cable airtime doesn’t hurt — if you can find a way to do it astutely.

“How do you get publicity without looking like you’re being foolish?,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a professor emeritus at Boston University who specializes in political communications. 


“That’s a real challenge. Many serious proposals don’t really break through the media clutter — whereas outrageous stunts do.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Source: The Hill

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