Trump has become the last Republican standing in the 2024 primary. Here’s how he bulldozed the field

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump arrives to speak at a Super Tuesday election night party Tuesday, March 5, 2024, at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump arrives to speak at a Super Tuesday election night party Tuesday, March 5, 2024, at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Eight years after Donald Trump outlasted a crowded field of Republican presidential candidates with his pugilistic and sometimes vulgar style, the former reality show star has done it again.

The former president is now the last major GOP candidate standing and poised to be the party’s nominee for a third time, outlasting all the other hopefuls now that Nikki Haley bowed out Wednesday.

Trump bulldozed a field of more than a dozen challengers, many of them with high profiles, by refusing to appear with them at debates and instead attacking the strongest of them on his own social media site and at large rallies where he spoke uninterrupted for hours. Trump retained the support of many early-state Republican voters who saw him as an incumbent, believe he was wrongly denied the White House four years ago based on false theories of voter fraud, and was unfairly targeted by federal and state prosecutors.

Other voters skeptical of his personal conduct or legal jeopardy supported his policy ideas and believed he would be best suited to defeat Democratic President Joe Biden in November. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, a longtime and fierce critic of Trump’s personal conduct, endorsed him on Wednesday.

“A tranche of them decided that they wanted him to finish the job that he started in 2016,” said Roy Bailey, a Texas-based donor who had backed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in the 2024 White House race. “A tranche of them are base that never left him. A tranche of them are people that came back to him as a result of the weaponization of Biden’s government against him because they just innately know that’s wrong,” he said. “And it shows how resilient and popular he still is.”

Trump finished Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses with a 30-percentage point victory that set a Republican record for the state without an incumbent in the race. Second-place finisher DeSantis, long seen as Trump’s most formidable challenger, fizzled as voters rallied to Trump while the DeSantis campaign and its allies repeatedly overhauled their strategy and leadership.

Before Haley dropped out, a long list of Republicans had already suspended their campaigns. Among them: South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and former Vice President Mike Pence. Scott and Ramaswamy endorsed Trump and began appearing on his behalf at campaign events.

By the time of the second contest of the year, the New Hampshire primary in January, it was down to just Haley. Trump went on to defeat her in New Hampshire and then her home state of South Carolina. Then Trump swept all but one state on Super Tuesday, the biggest primary day of the year.

Haley beat Trump in the District of Columbia, in results announced Sunday, and in Vermont on Tuesday, becoming the first woman to win a GOP primary.

Unlike in 2016, when Trump’s path to the nomination seemed improbable as he challenged more experienced politicians, this time around it started to seem inevitable long before any votes were cast.

When he launched his latest campaign, Trump was absorbing blame for the party’s underwhelming performance in the 2022 midterm election and facing fresh controversy for dining with a white nationalist. The FBI had searched his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, where he kicked off his campaign, to look for classified documents he had refused to return to the National Archives.

But his prospects only improved despite a barrage of legal problems, including four criminal cases in which he faces 91 counts, a civil complaint and a subsequent defamation case in which a jury found him liable for sexual abuse, and a $355 million fraud verdict against his businesses.

Many voters have echoed Trump’s repeated assertions that he is being targeted in the courts by his political enemies. His rivals for the nomination found themselves defending Trump from the cases against him, not wanting to draw blowback from his enthusiastic supporters.

Scot Stebbins Sr., waited in the cold in his city of Laconia, New Hampshire, to see the person he called “the greatest president that we’ve ever had since Abraham Lincoln.”

“He’s for the people. He is not being bought out by all the other government officials that are corrupt. And he has done nothing but good for our nation,” Stebbins Sr. said. Stebbins said he didn’t worry about Trump’s legal cases “one bit because they’re all probably made up and it’s a witch hunt.”

Trump made his pitch his own way. He posted rants and insults on his social media network. He held large rallies in which he cracked jokes, vilified his rivals and enemies, read the lyrics of a dark song, “The Snake,” to warn about immigration, and listed the nation’s ills while playing an instrumental song that adherents of the QAnon conspiracy theory have claimed as their anthem.

His most die-hard fans and supporters couldn’t get enough.

Trump has drawn large crowds as he’s campaigned in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and other states. He’s appeared before cheering crowds decked out in “Make America Great Again” hats, buttons, socks and other items bearing his face, as well as T-shirts with his mug shot when he surrendered on charges that he illegally schemed to overturn the 2020 election in Georgia. Hundreds of rallygoers are often turned away due to capacity concerns.

His Republican rivals not only failed to match that level of enthusiasm, but they seemed to follow the pattern of 2016, when other candidates held back from responding to his attacks or taking him on directly until it was too late.

With Trump on an apparent path to be the Republican nominee and the same for Biden on the Democratic side, it appears the nation is headed to a rematch from 2020.

That election, and Trump’s refusal to accept his loss, led to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by his supporters and eventually state and federal charges for Trump for trying to overturn the results.

That race — rather than a forward-facing vision — has been the propellant for his 2024 campaign.

As Trump has won over voters in the early primary states, he’s laced his speeches and statements with lies about fraud in 2020, cast his legal troubles as a political plot to interfere with the November vote and promised “retribution.” He refers to the people imprisoned for their roles in the insurrection as “hostages.”

Trump has rocketed through the primary, but he has significant political vulnerabilities in a general election.

Some 58% of Americans would be very or somewhat dissatisfied with Trump winning the Republican nomination, according to a December survey from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. The poll found a similar proportion of dissatisfaction (56%) for Biden winning the Democratic nomination.

Trump may spend weeks or months in a courtroom fighting felony charges that could result in his ending up in prison — an unprecedented scenario in American history. His first trial in New York on charges of trying to silence affair allegations from a porn actress begins March 25.

But his message has been resoundingly embraced by many Republican voters — at least those active in the party’s primary contests thus far.

AP Politics

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