WASHINGTON — One man’s loss is another man’s gain.
Or so GOP presidential candidate Asa Hutchinson hopes.
Sitting in a Washington, D.C. café the morning after Ron DeSantis launched his 2024 bid, Hutchinson calls attention to the Florida governor’s “faltering” poll numbers and “rocky” entry into the Republican presidential primary.
“He’s dropped significantly. He has actually encouraged others to look at the race,” Hutchinson said of his newest opponent in an interview with USA TODAY. “It’s wide open, in terms of who’s really going to be the next best alternative to Donald Trump as a nominee.”
Hutchinson is in the low single digits in national polling. But then again, most of the rest of the field is, too.
Only Trump and DeSantis have significant support in the presidential primary that could prove to be unusually volatile.
A month after joining the race, Hutchinson sees a wide-open contest with an undeveloped field in which he could still attract surprise competition. The former Arkansas governor said he has the funds he needs to place well enough in the early voting states and remain in the race until Super Tuesday, where he’ll be on more fertile ground.
“It’s not a two-man race,” Hutchinson said.
DeSantis has seen his support collapse over the last two months, dropping from 33 percent in late March in a Quinnipiac University poll to 25 percent on the day he launched his campaign in a glitch-filled, audio-only conversation on Twitter with proprietor Elon Musk.
Trump has been the beneficiary of the Republican’s demise in polling. He improved his standing in the Quinnipiac poll by nine points to 56%. The survey had him winning 47 percent of potential Republican primary voters before.
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Hutchinson said he believes Trump’s numbers are inflated and could subside. Trump’s support was lower in November, immediately after the midterms, when he was being blamed for costing Republicans seats in Congress.
Trump’s backing in surveys of GOP voters increased after a grand jury indicted him in New York.
“People perceived him as being picked on and being the victim and so his numbers go up. I think that’s evidence that they’re artificially high. We will see. But I think that is an indication of it,” Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson will have an opportunity to test his theory next month in Georgia — where Trump is under investigation for trying to overturn his 2020 election loss. Both men are scheduled to appear at the Georgia Republican Party’s convention in June.
He said he does not intend to lead with criticisms of Trump over his conduct before and after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol but will not shy away from stating his opinion if asked for it by a voter during the campaign visit.
“I think we make a mistake whenever we make that the definitive issue,” Hutchinson said. “It is very important, and candidates need to be honest about that, but voters might come to different conclusions on that. I will disagree with them on that — but they might agree with me on 80% of the other issues, and they actually want to focus on problems, too.”
Hutchinson said that in the same way he believes Trump is hyper-focused on the past, it would be an error for him to spend too much time reflecting on the former president’s 2020 election loss.
It’s a politically-calculated distinction the Republican, who is trying to win over a primary electorate that agrees with Trump, is attempting to make without costing himself support down the line from Trump-hating moderates.
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The former Homeland Security and Drug Enforcement Administration official would rather fight Trump and DeSantis in the policy arena, especially when it comes to foreign policy.
“I would have never called it a territorial dispute,” he said, referring a comment DeSantis made about Russia’s war in Ukraine. “I would never give that response. It’s wrong.”
Turning to Trump, who declined to say in a town hall whether he wanted Ukraine to win the war, Hutchinson said, “Whenever he talks about spending too much there, I mean, he clearly has a more isolationist view of America. And I think that’s the wrong direction for us.”
DeSantis’ remarks on Ukraine, which he later amended, preceded a steep dropoff in support.
With announced and unannounced candidates such as Hutchinson, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and former Vice President Mike Pence failing to take off in the wake of the comments and Trump’s legal challenges, Republican politicians from former Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin to former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have signaled renewed interest in competing for the GOP nomination.
The addition of more candidates to the race could make it harder for any one of them to consolidate support and topple Trump.
Hutchinson said that in his view, it’s time to move to the “second stage” of the competition, where the policy differences between candidates come into focus.
“And you know, as a candidate, I hope they all make the decision that they shouldn’t get in,” Hutchinson said.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Republican Asa Hutchison knocks 2024 rival Ron DeSantis’ rocky rollout