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Dick Polman: The Republican presidential contest is getting awfully crowded

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If my math is correct, the 2024 Republican presidential contest is starting to look like the Marx brothers’ stateroom scene.

Right now, I count nine or 10 active or explorative candidates: criminal defendant/convicted sexual abuser Donald Trump, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, ex-South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Gov. Ron DeSantis of DeSantistan, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, hangman’s noose escapee Mike Pence, beach meme Chris Christie, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, and loony tech bro Vivek Ramaswamy. And maybe Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who knows.

The good news: Some of those folks refuse to gulp the MAGA Kool-Aid.

Hutchinson, Sununu, and Christie are vocal about extracting the Republican party from the demagogue’s death grip. Sununu, who’s popular in his home state (home of the famous early primary), calls Trump “a three-time loser” who’d notch number four in 2024. Tim Scott also wants the GOP to move on, but he’s tweaking Trump by inference only. From his stump message earlier this week: Do Republicans want “victimhood or victory? Grievance or greatness?”

There’s a sizable Republican market for turning the page. According to a national poll conducted in April, 44% of grassroot GOPers want an alternative to Trump. Hence the growing slate of candidates who are willing to take him on – mindful, by the way, that he’s likely to be criminally charged yet again before year’s end.

Imagine how much the guy will whine if he’s indicted in D.C. or Georgia or both. That’s what Tim Scott was referring to when he urged Republicans to swear off “victimhood.” Indeed, Trump tried to play the victim for the umpteenth time earlier this week, when he said on a radio show (get ready for this one): “I think I have been violated as badly as anybody that’s ever walked.”

So bravo for all the Republican candidates who want to dump Trump in history’s trash bin. Granted, they’d largely pursue MAGA-style policies – when Trump was president, Scott voted his way 96.7% of the time – but most would eschew his authoritarian cult of personality. When Scott, the first Black officeholder to ever seek the GOP nomination, was asked yesterday whether as president he would ever plot to overturn a lost election, he bluntly replied: “No.” That’s progress, right?

But here’s the bad news, which you knew was coming. As more and more candidates join up to challenge Trump, the better the odds are that the nominee will be Trump.

How come? Because the delegate rules make it so.

Without getting into the weeds, Republicans tend to award all or most of a state’s delegates to the candidate who finishes first in that state’s primary contest. Last time around (and nothing has changed since), 60.5% of the delegates were chosen via that “winner-take-all” formula, or some variation thereof.

That’s a boon for Trump. He still commands the hardcore allegiance of, say, 40% of Republican voters. Even if he were to grope a woman’s privates on live TV, they’d drool their approval in the voting booth. So, if a winner-take-all state holds a primary, and a half dozen Trump rivals divvy up the gettable 60%, Trump would score a plurality win and thus grab all or most of that state’s delegates.

No wonder Trump welcomed Tim Scott into the race, posting a friendly social media message. From his perspective, the more the merrier.

The only way to thwart the harsh delegate math is to take Trump down. The question is how. If his many challengers soft-pedal their criticisms, or eschew them altogether, they buttress the perception within the party that Trump is invincible.

Scott punted when he was asked to critique Trump’s coup plottings prior to Jan. 6; his response: “I’m gonna stay on my vision for the future.”

Scott wants to sprinkle upbeat Reaganesque fairy dust without getting his hands dirty. He says that Republicans need to renounce grievances and victimhood; on the other hand, he says, “I’m so thankful that we had President Trump in office.”

Michael Steele, the former GOP national chairman and Trump critic, reportedly said that wimping out won’t work: “You cannot lean into ‘the best days (are) ahead of you’ until you deal with the cancer inside of you at the moment.”

But the reverse is just as problematical. If the rival candidates attack the Trump cancer with all systems go and full moral clarity, they’ll alienate the MAGA voters whom they covet. And even if Scott or one of the other Republicans somehow surges into the lead, don’t bet that Trump would ever concede – without threatening, at minimum, to tear the party apart.

At least the Marx brothers knew how to handle a crowd.

Dick Polman, a veteran national political columnist based in Philadelphia and a Writer in Residence at the University of Pennsylvania, writes at Email him at

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