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Donald Trump seems inescapable, but many Republicans are embracing a campaign discussion without him

ATLANTA (AP) — Donald Trump’s decision to skip the first Republican debate could hurt ratings and put more pressure on the eight contenders who will take the podium. But many mainstream conservatives said they’d like to see their options without the former president dominating the conversation.

“People are so focused on the circus,” said Melissa Watford, a 53-year-old Republican from a suburb of Atlanta. ‘He’s just a distraction. Distraction, distraction, distraction.”

Watford’s husband, Jack, said he would still consider supporting Trump if he wins the nomination, but described the former president as “clickbait” and expressed his relief to see him take the stage in Milwaukee on Wednesday.

“When he’s out of the picture,” said the 61-year-old, “you can actually hear other candidates, really listen to them.”

The Watfords represent a significant portion of the Republican primary voters who, regardless of their feelings about Trump, want the party to struggle with its identity and choices instead of handing the former president a third consecutive nomination without a fight. The group is difficult to quantify precisely, although Republican Party pollsters and Trump’s competitors believe the group is large enough to overcome Trump’s base.

It extends beyond the small but vocal “Never Trump” faction. Instead, there is a large section of the party that is open to new options — but that has supported Trump in the past, is at least somewhat sympathetic to his legal risk, and would almost certainly vote for him again in a general election if he were the being nominated. .

“I’m deeply concerned about the bigger picture, about what Joe Biden and his administration are doing to the country,” said Terry Lathan, a former Alabama Republican Party chairman who once supported Trump, but now Florida Governor Ron DeSantis , if president supports. “The policy and the Republican platform should be at the top of the food chain here.”

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However, Lathan acknowledged that “there’s no bigger personality than President Trump… There are a lot of people out there willing to do it all over again.”

What a post-Trump party could look like was seen last weekend at conservative radio host Erick Erickson’s annual political rally, “The Gathering,” staged in Atlanta’s Republican-leaning Buckhead neighborhood, a Democratic stronghold. Hundreds of activists, operatives and mainstream conservatives attended and tested their theories on post-Trump republicanism.

The dynamic at “The Gathering” Wednesday night underlined the challenge for Trump’s rivals. None of them have so far garnered enough support to prevent a splintering of the Republican base.

Robert Kuehl, a 33-year-old Republican from Georgia, shared how during the 2016 campaign he saw friends gravitate toward Trump’s populism because of their disillusionment with an uneven economy and an entrenched political class. “He talked to them, and there’s still a deep loyalty there,” Kuehl said, before adding that the former president’s latest campaign seems much more self-serving.

“There’s a lot of optimism among the other candidates” about conservatism and the country as a whole, he said, “and that’s something that was missing under Trump’s scrutiny.”

Erickson conducted one-on-one interviews with DeSantis, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, technology entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, and former Vice President Mike Pence.

They all planned to be on stage in Milwaukee.

Erickson did not invite Trump to Atlanta. He rejects Trump’s false statements about the 2020 election and has consistently urged his listeners to look ahead. There were no “Make America Great Again” hats in the audience. And Erickson didn’t ask candidates about the former president.

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“We know what they would say,” he said.

Still, the party appears poised to go with Trump for a third time and is unsure how to go in a different direction. The broader takeaway from attendees at Erickson’s event was candidates’ desire to keep their pitches outside the Trump-mandated box.

“These candidates are pigeonholed or simply ignored in the media, especially on television,” said Raz Shafer, a 37-year-old from Stephenville, Texas. “It’s refreshing to hear a different, deeper perspective in their own voice.”

Shafer said he was most impressed with DeSantis, Haley and Christie. DeSantis, he argued, crushed stories that he is “falling apart.” Haley, he said, has demonstrated depth in domestic and foreign policy as a former governor and ambassador. And Christie went beyond “the usual sound bites” of Trump’s shooting, he said.

Lorelei Eddy, a 58-year-old from Fayetteville, Georgia, said the New Jersey politician has dispelled her views that he is “more on the liberal side of conservative.” Instead, with plenty of time on the microphone, Christie explained how he went head-to-head with leading lawmakers and local officials in deeply Democratic New Jersey, ultimately compromising with them to win policy victories.

But as Christie left the stage and met the media outside, he eagerly answered Trump-related questions, calling the former president a “coward” for skipping Milwaukee and musing that Trump is “afraid” of a “prison cell.”

Criticism of Trump does not necessarily have to hurt Eddy, as long as she gets to hear more about the alternatives. She said she has never voted for Trump, either in the primary or in the general election. “He has never lived up to my values ​​as a conservative,” she said, stressing that it is possible to find a true conservative who “can get things done” and “can’t cause division.”

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Melissa Watford said Ramaswamy stood out because he was “a lot like Trump, as an outsider, but without all the baggage.” She said she is not ready to choose a candidate yet.

Of course, as voters discuss their choices, they are a reminder of how deep the former president’s stamp runs and how the differences between Trump’s rivals can make it more difficult for them to assemble a majority or even plurality coalition. bring that rivals his own.

For example, Eddy praised Scott, the South Carolina senator and nationally best-known Black Republican, as “very, very convincing,” but she wondered “if he could win yet.”

Shafer called Pence a “man of character” whom history will “remember fondly” for refusing Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election. But Shafer did not include him in his highest level. Of Pence, Eddy said that “most people aren’t looking for that seasoned politician.”

Thomas Eddy, who came to Erickson’s meeting with his wife, said he understands that most voters will never look at the candidates as extensively and closely as they did recently. And he said he expected Wednesday’s debate could include, even without Trump, the kinds of Trump-centered questions Christie so willingly asked in Atlanta.

“It’s frustrating how this primary system works,” he said. “There must be a better way.”

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