NEW YORK -- When Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina launched his campaign for the White House last week, the notoriously prickly former President Donald Trump welcomed his new competitor with open arms.
There were no accusations of disloyalty or nasty nicknames from the GOP front-runner like the barrage he unleashed when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, considered his leading rival, joined the race two days later with a bungled Twitter announcement.
“Good luck to Senator Tim Scott in entering the Republican Presidential Primary Race,” Trump said. “It is rapidly loading up with lots of people, and Tim is a big step up from Ron DeSanctimonious, who is totally unelectable."
The contrast underscores not only the fact that Trump sees DeSantis as his most formidable rival, but also basic math: He and his team have long believed the more candidates who enter the Republican primary contest, the better for Trump. They are operating under the assumption that no other candidate will be able to consolidate enough of the anti-Trump vote to take him down. Other candidates who enter the race, they argue, are competing for DeSantis' share of the vote.
And the field is growing by the day.
In the coming weeks, at least four additional candidates are expected to launch their own campaigns, joining a field that already includes DeSantis, Scott, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, tech billionaire Vivek Ramaswamy and several longer-shots like conservative talk radio host Larry Elder.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s entry into the race is “imminent,” according to a person familiar with his thinking who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss his plans. Former Vice President Mike Pence is expected to launch his campaign next month, and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum is eyeing June 7 as a launch date. Miami Mayor Francis Suarez told The Associated Press last week that he’s “strongly considering” running, as is New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu.
Even former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has run for president twice already, recently said on CNN that he hadn't taken a third campaign off the table. And Axios reported that Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who had previously said his focus is on state elections, is reconsidering his plans after earlier dismissing speculation.
“This is an indictment of DeSantis’ disastrous announcement and his dismal poll numbers," said Trump spokesperson Steven Cheung of the coming announcements. "DeSantis’ blood is in the water and every candidate sees how feeble and weak he is.”
Indeed, several of the declared and would-be candidates have been escalating their attacks against DeSantis as they compete for second place.
Republicans once warned about a repeat of 2016, when the sprawling GOP field failed to coalesce around a Trump alternative, giving him the nomination. But much of the urgency that once existed among Trump’s GOP rivals to limit the field has faded in recent months.
“The important point is not how many candidates start the race, it's how many stay in after they no longer have a chance of getting the nomination,” said Whit Ayres, a veteran Republican pollster and strategist. “We learned that from the Democratic nomination in 2020. There were many candidates who started the race. But once it became clear that Joe Biden was going to win the nomination, within hours the rest of them all dropped out and endorsed him.”
It it still far too early, Ayers said, to know who the strongest non-Trump candidate will be.
“The idea that you're going to decide before the race even starts which one to rally behind is very premature," he said. “There’s so many shoes that could still drop.”
Among them are the ongoing investigations into Trump, including the Justice Department's probe into his handling of classified documents and state and federal investigations into his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election. Trump has already been indicted in New York and additional criminal charges would create an unprecedented situation with unknown consequences.
New York-based Republican donor Eric Levine, a fierce Trump critic, earlier in the year warned of dire consequences should the GOP primary field grow too large. This week, however, Levine played down the significance of the growing number of candidates, noting many of Trump’s rivals are only polling in the low single digits.
The only “serious candidates” beyond Trump, Levine said, are DeSantis, Haley, Scott, Pence (if he runs) and perhaps Sununu and Youngkin, should they get in.
Still, Levine said: “I’d rather there’d be fewer people, no question."
Meanwhile, Trump has been trying to project a sense of inevitability and dominance of the field. He told reporters during a golf tournament Thursday that he's not sure there's any point in debating given his current poll numbers.
“Unless he gets close, why would anyone debate?” he said of DeSantis.
He also urged the party to rally behind him. Democrats, he said, “are hoping for a long, drawn-out Republican primary."
“That's why the Republican Party needs to unite behind the standard-bearer of the MAGA movement," he said in a video message, referring to his “Make America Great Again” slogan.
Many Republicans seem to believe the party will eventually rally around its strongest Trump challengers, with other candidates stepping aside once they realize they can't win. But it remains unclear how exactly that will happen, given the political aspirations of those involved. If DeSantis does maintain his standing in second place, some worry his chilly relationships with the other candidates will make it even less likely the party will unite behind him.
In the meantime, candidates like Haley have been stepping up their attacks against DeSantis, while others prepare to join the race. They include Suarez, who would be the only Hispanic candidate in the 2024 field.
The 45-year-old Republican is not well known nationally but has begun meeting voters in key primary states like South Carolina and is believed to be sitting on millions of dollars in the bank.
Suarez avoided any criticism of Trump during a recent interview, saying only that the former president “without a doubt is in the pole position.”
But he was more willing to highlight what he called DeSantis’ “structural” liabilities, pointing to the Florida governor’s struggle to build relationships with many Republican officials in the state, including him. He also noted DeSantis’ recent conservative legislative accomplishments and his battle with Disney.
“There are things that, at least what I’ve heard from the donor class, are something that has made them second-guess their support for him,” he said.