Trump’s shadow looms large over GOP gathering of White House hopefuls

Florida governor and Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis, right, speaking to News 95.5 AM 750 WSB host Erick Erickson, tried to lighten his image during his time on stage Friday at the Gathering, a conservative political conference in Buckhead. But he also maintained his hard-line approach to the country's southern border. “We are going to authorize the use of deadly force against cartels,” DeSantis said if he's elected president. “If you have somebody coming in with the fentanyl in their backpack, if they even break through the border wall ... that’s the last thing they’re going to be able to do.” (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Florida governor and Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis, right, speaking to News 95.5 AM 750 WSB host Erick Erickson, tried to lighten his image during his time on stage Friday at the Gathering, a conservative political conference in Buckhead. But he also maintained his hard-line approach to the country's southern border. “We are going to authorize the use of deadly force against cartels,” DeSantis said if he's elected president. “If you have somebody coming in with the fentanyl in their backpack, if they even break through the border wall ... that’s the last thing they’re going to be able to do.” (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Erick Erickson opened his conservative conference Friday in Atlanta with an admonition that Donald Trump shouldn’t be the focus of an event that drew six other White House hopefuls.

But the specter of the former president was impossible to avoid in a city where he was days ago indicted on charges of orchestrating a “criminal enterprise” to subvert the will of Georgia voters in 2020.

One Republican presidential contender after another tiptoed around Trump’s legal peril, which grew this week to include the Fulton County indictment that amounts to the most sprawling of the four leveled against the former president.

But each candidate studiously avoided condemning Trump or citing the many charges against him as a threat to the party’s 2024 chances against President Joe Biden. Instead, they scoured for other ways to distinguish themselves from the GOP front-runner without alienating his supporters.

South Carolina U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, now running for the Republican nomination for president, used his time Friday as the opening speaker at the Gathering to take aim at the Justice Department. That included talking about ousting Attorney General Merrick Garland and FBI Director Christopher Wray. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

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Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

U.S. Sen. Tim Scott promised to clean house at the Justice Department. Former Vice President Mike Pence ticked through policy contrasts with his former boss. And Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis warned against allowing background noise to distract Republicans from defeating Biden.

“I hope we’ll be focused on the future of the country, rather than the other static that’s out there right now,” DeSantis said to hundreds of conservatives at the Gathering.

“A lot of the static, a lot of the things about looking backward, is not going to help us secure this border,” the Florida governor added. “That is not going to help these middle-class families who are struggling.”

The candidates’ restrained approach to Trump has shaped a race that has remained remarkably stable despite the drumbeat of criminal charges against the former president.

With few exceptions, Trump’s rivals have avoided confronting him over the indictments he faces in Atlanta, Miami, New York and Washington. Trump predicted the charges, which he dismisses as a corrupt “witch hunt,” will bolster his comeback bid by unifying conservatives.

The lone politician on the stage to take an edgier approach was Gov. Brian Kemp, whose once close alliance with Trump shattered in 2020 after the then-president blamed him for his election defeat.

Gov. Brian Kemp, right, told News 95.5 AM 750 WSB host Erick Erickson that Republicans need to look ahead and not back at the last presidential election if they are to win the White House in 2024. “We have to be focused on the future — not something that happened three years ago,” he said. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

But even Kemp didn’t mention Trump’s name, instead predicting a Fulton County trial won’t take place until after the November 2024 election.

“We have to be focused on the future — not something that happened three years ago. You don’t need to be focused on stupid things that aren’t going to happen before this election,” he said. “We can deal with that later, after we win.”

‘A blindfold’

The attempt at a Trump-free tone at the Grand Hyatt Buckhead was set early by Erickson, the News 95.5 AM 750 WSB host who has long organized the event. In 2015, he famously disinvited Trump amid a bitter feud. This year, Trump was left off Erickson’s invite list entirely.

Erickson said he solicited 300 questions from the audience that mostly focused on domestic security, fiscal policy and other agenda items that have gone overlooked.

“I don’t know the answers to those questions from the candidates,” he said, “because all the media asks about is the indictments.”

Still, Trump even colored those conversations. Pence reminded the audience about his refusal to block Biden’s victory after a pro-Trump mob attacked the U.S. Capitol. But he spent more time telling conservatives about key issues where he and Trump differ.

Former Vice President Mike Pence was one of the Republican candidates for the White House who spoke at the Gathering on Friday about how he differed from former President Donald Trump. “I’ve debated Trump a thousand times,” he said to laughs. “Just not with the cameras on.” (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

“I’ve debated Trump a thousand times,” he said to laughs. “Just not with the cameras on.”

Unlike Trump, Pence has called to revamp the nation’s strained retirement system — just not for people who are near or in retirement. He criticized Trump and other Republicans who would “pull back from American leadership” on the international stage. And he said he would push for federal abortion restrictions rather than leave it to the states.

Scott, who earned some of the warmest applause, played into pro-Trump concerns that the judicial system has been politicized to protect Biden. He talked about ousting Attorney General Merrick Garland and Christopher Wray, the Atlanta attorney who heads the FBI.

“Lady Justice needs a blindfold,” the South Carolina Republican said.

As for DeSantis, he seemed determined to show a different side of his personality than the buttoned-up persona that Trump’s supporters often mock. In between hard-edged policy talk, he cracked jokes about college football and quipped about slow drivers.

The ballroom filled with cheers as he outlined plans to crack down on drug trafficking and leave smugglers “stone cold dead” if they’re caught illegally entering the U.S.

“We are going to authorize the use of deadly force against cartels,” DeSantis said. “If you have somebody coming in with the fentanyl in their backpack, if they even break through the border wall ... that’s the last thing they’re going to be able to do.”

And former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley bemoaned the unrelenting spotlight on Trump, saying voters aren’t obsessed with him in the dozens of town halls she’s held in the early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

”Not one of them is asking me about Trump or why I’m running against him,” she said. “What they are talking about is inflation and why groceries and gas are so expensive.”

Attendees at the Gathering on Friday in Buckhead listen to Florida governor and Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis, who seemed determined to show a different side of his personality than the buttoned-up persona that Donald Trump’s supporters often mock. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com