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Where the Republican presidential candidates stand on Donald Trump

Former President Donald Trump reacts to supporters during a commit to caucus rally, Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2023, in Waterloo, Iowa.
Charlie Neibergall
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AP
Former President Donald Trump reacts to supporters during a commit to caucus rally, Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2023, in Waterloo, Iowa.

Former President Donald Trump has been dominating the Republican primary race for months.

Most of his rivals have gone to great pains to avoid directly criticizing the former president out of concern that it would alienate base Republican voters.

For months, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie seemed to be the lone major candidate willing to attack Trump directly. He even tried to give Trump a nickname, Donald Duck.

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have largely favored indirect attacks on the undisputed frontrunner.

But with a week to go before the Iowa caucuses, the candidates are stepping up attacks on Trump as they try to convince voters that they deserve to be at the top of the Republican party's ticket.

NPR took a look at the candidates' views on some of the top issues involving the former president and how the former president has defended himself.

Electability

Republican presidential candidates from left, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by NewsNation on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023, at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Gerald Herbert / AP
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AP
Republican presidential candidates from left, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by NewsNation on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023, at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

President Trump's biggest vulnerability was supposed to be his electability. But candidates have only recently drilled into the issue.

When pressed by a supporter why he's been "soft" on Trump, DeSantis offered one of his clearest rebukes yet of the former president.

In an exchange with a voter during a campaign stop in Iowa, DeSantis said he didn't think Trump could win.

He emphasized it's not just about policy differences, but that too many voters just don't like Trump and would be "activated" to vote against him.

He pointed to recent elections where Trump and Trump-backed candidates have lost.

"We've seen it on the ballot, how many times 2018, 2020, 2022. Most recently in 2023. And the whole election will be a referendum on his behavior."

Haley has also more recently been speaking to the electability argument. She says the United States doesn't need another nail-biter of an election.

She has pointed to polls that show her performing better in a match-up with Biden than either Trump or DeSantis.

"Look at any of the polls head-to-head against Joe Biden. Ron doesn't beat Biden. Trump head-to-head — on a good day he might be up by 2. The Wall Street Journal had him up by 4. I'm in every one of those same polls," she said at an Iowa town hall even hosted by CNN. "I defeat Biden by 17 points. Seventeen points!"

But the fact that Trump is running ahead of behind Biden in a number of national polls.

And some swing state polls show Trump winning by even larger margins, undercutting those concerns.

Competency

Haley, who was the former United Nations ambassador under Trump, says her old boss was the "right president at the right time" but that he causes too much chaos to be successful in a second term.

"We can't have a country in disarray and a world on fire and go through four more years of chaos. We won't survive it," she explained at an Iowa town hall event hosted by CNN.

She has attacked Trump's policies, charging that he was overly focused on trade and did not do enough to address the flow of fentanyl. And she attacked Trump on his handling of the economy, which is considered to be his strongest record by many Republicans.

"Everybody talks about how good the economy was under Trump. And it was good, right? But at what cost," Haley asked. "We had $8 trillion dollars in debt just in four years. Our kids will never forgive us for that."

DeSantis, meanwhile, has said Trump "set the stage" for rising inflation. He criticized the former president for failing to finish the wall at the U.S.-Mexico border.

And he's accused Trump of "flip-flopping his position on abortion." He pointed to comments Trump made calling the six-week abortion ban DeSantis signed as governor of Florida a "terrible mistake."

Christie, released a campaign ad stating that he made a mistake by endorsing Trump for president in 2016.

"I'm in this race because the truth needs to be spoken: He is unfit," Christie said of Trump at the fourth GOP presidential debate. "This is a guy who just said this past week that he wants to use the Department of Justice to go after his enemies when he gets in there. And the fact of the matter is, he is unfit to be president. And there is no bigger issue in this race."

Meanwhile, political newcomer Vivek Ramaswamy has vigorously defended Trump throughout his campaign. He called Trump the "best president of the 21st century" and has rarely wavered on that point.

The Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol

FILE - In this Jan. 6, 2021 file photo insurrectionists loyal to President Donald Trump riot outside the Capitol in Washington.
John Minchillo / AP
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AP
FILE - In this Jan. 6, 2021 file photo insurrectionists loyal to President Donald Trump riot outside the Capitol in Washington.

On the campaign trail, Trump has downplayed the violence that ensued on Jan. 6. He's described it as a "beautiful day" and called those charged and convicted in the attack "hostages."

It was one of the first issues where Haley broke with Trump, saying early in the campaign that it was not a beautiful day.

"It was a terrible day and we don't ever want that to happen again," Haley said at an Iowa event last spring.

She continued that message throughout her campaign and sharpening her message in recent weeks. Last month, she told ABC News that Trump could have not only prevented the attack, but stopped them once they began.

"When President Trump had the opportunity to stop it, when he had the opportunity to say – the bully pulpit matters, people listen – he didn't," she said.

DeSantis has described the attack a riot, but stopped short of calling it an insurrection. He has described it as a bad day for the country, but largely blamed Democrats and the media of trying to smear Trump supporters.

Christie has blasted Trump for siting in "that little dining room of his" at the White House and "doing nothing to stop what was going on."

He's also criticized DeSantis and others for not taking a stronger stand against Trump's actions that day.

Ramaswamy, at the Republican debate in Alabama, promoted the conspiracy theory that the Jan. 6 attack was an "inside job."

He then took the line on the campaign trail, while also promoting a series of additional conspiracy theories.

Last week, on the anniversary of Jan. 6, he tweeted "Happy Entrapment Day."

Should Trump be pardoned if he is found guilty for the criminal charges he is facing at the state and federal level?

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Trump faces four separate indictments, including two from the Justice Department over his handling of of classified documents and attempts to overturn the 2020 election. He's the first president in American history to be charged with either state or federal crimes.

He has denied that he did anything wrong, and successfully used the indictments to fuel his campaign. He turned the investigations into a litmus test for the rest of the field.

He has raged against the justice system, claiming there is a double standard of justice for Republicans by the Department of Justice and FBI.

Indeed, those who took the opportunity to criticize Trump over the investigations faced the wrath of Trump supporters at the debates and other party events.

His top rivals have largely echoed his messages.

"The weaponization of federal law enforcement represents a mortal threat to a free society. We have for years witnessed an uneven application of the law depending upon political affiliation," DeSantis tweeted.

Haley has both called the investigations of Trump political, while also criticizing Trump for being "incredibly reckless" with U.S. national security materials.

Nonetheless, she's pledged to pardon the former president if he's convicted.

"I would pardon Trump if he's found guilty," she said in New Hampshire. DeSantis echoed Haley's commitment to pardon Trump, saying it was important to "move on as a country"

Ramaswamy said he would pardon Trump on Day 1 of his administration.

Christie said he would not pardon Trump.

Christie told the hosts on the "The View," that the person needs to accept responsibility for what they did. Something, he said, Trump would not do.

"It'd be really the easiest pardon decision I would ever have to make as president," Christie said. "You don't accept responsibility? Too bad. Go to jail."

Should Trump be on the ballot in states like Colorado and Maine?

Republican presidential candidates were quick to defend Trump after the Colorado Supreme Court and the Maine Secretary of State ruled he would be disqualified from their individual state 2024 primary ballots.

Haley called the decisions "dangerous" for democracy.

"I will beat him fair and square. We don't need to have judges making these decisions," Haley told reporters. "We need voters to make these decisions."

DeSantis and Ramaswamy also argued that judges should not play a role in the election process.

Even Christie came to Trump's defense on the ballot issue.

"I do not believe Donald Trump should be prevented from being president of the United States by any court," he said in New Hampshire. "He should be prevented from being president by the voters of this country. I don't believe it is good for our country if he is precluded from the ballot by a court. It is bad for the country if that happens."

Trump has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the Colorado case.

"We urge a clear, summary rejection of the Colorado Supreme Court's wrongful ruling and the execution of a free and fair election this November," Trump spokesperson Steven Cheung said in a statement after Trump asked for the Supreme Court's intervention.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Franco Ordoñez
Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.