ATLANTA — Republican presidential hopefuls gathered here Friday for an event Donald Trump wasn’t invited to and didn’t attend.
They still couldn’t escape the former president.
“I had hoped that judgments about the events around January 6 would be left to the American people and to history,” former Vice President Mike Pence told reporters at conservative radio host Erick Erickson’s two-day conference. “But that’s not the case.”
Pence was the only candidate to directly address Trump’s most recent indictment, which alleges the former president and more than a dozen others tried to subvert the 2020 election results in Georgia, a key battleground state that President Joe Biden narrowly won. The candidates largely avoided journalists who sought their stance on the wide-ranging indictment out of Fulton County, Ga.
Less than a week before the first primary debate, the event served as a preview of how difficult it remains for Trump’s rivals to navigate one of the biggest issues facing the GOP field — Trump’s growing list of criminal charges. The former president, who is set to turn himself in to local authorities as early as next week, is now facing four separate criminal trials along the eastern seaboard, though the charges in Fulton County — a county Trump lost by more than 240,000 votes — stands out in part because the state will play such a pivotal role in the upcoming presidential election.
“The road to the White House is running through Georgia,” Georgia GOP Gov. Brian Kemp said onstage at the conference. “If we don’t win this state we are not winning the White House.”
Kemp, along with Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s top election official, has blistered Trump over his claims. Kemp may also be a witness in Trump’s upcoming Georgia trial.
Erickson addressed the awkwardness of the situation at the very start of the event Friday, promising not to discuss Trump even though “that seems to be the conversation in the media.”
“The former president isn’t going to be here,” Erickson said. “With all respect to him, it kind of works out because, under Georgia law, if he were to come you know what the D.A. would want to do.”
Erickson, however, broke his own rule, and asked Kemp — only the second of about 30 speakers — his thoughts on Trump’s indictment.
Onstage, Pence sought to make the clearest distinction between himself and Trump, as well as other candidates in the race. He criticized Republicans, including Trump, who viewed it as “someone else’s problem” to reform Social Security and Medicare and didn’t support a federal abortion ban. He also took aim at Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, without naming him, for using “the power of the state to enforce” his agenda, likely alluding to his high-profile battle with Walt Disney World.
He repeated his stance that the Georgia election wasn’t stolen, but added that Trump and others named in the indictment were “entitled to the presumption of innocence” and said voters were more interested in moving forward.
DeSantis, who is struggling to gain traction among voters and has faced declining poll numbers, didn’t address Trump’s indictment, though he jabbed at Trump in more indirect ways. He blamed Covid lockdowns that started under Trump for hurting the economy, and asserted that the country’s leading infectious disease expert in the former president’s administration, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who led the pandemic response, should have been fired.
DeSantis previously criticized the charges against Trump by attacking the federal government, claiming it weaponized the legal system and criminalized politics.
Even Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who didn’t field questions from Erickson about Trump and left the conference after he was done speaking, called on Attorney General Merrick Garland and FBI director Chris Wray to be fired. At the Iowa State Fair this week, Scott took a similar stance as DeSantis, arguing that the legal system was “being weaponized against political opponents.”
The strongest line of attacks against Trump on Friday came from Kemp, who has made no secret of his opposition to Trump. Kemp’s endorsement in the 2024 race would likely be highly coveted ahead of the March primary in Georgia. DeSantis met with the governor on Friday for about 30 minutes but discussed his time on the campaign trail and didn’t ask for an endorsement, POLITICO first reported. Pence also spoke with Kemp.
Kemp framed Trump’s legal issues as a “stupid” distraction, predicting the trial in Georgia wouldn’t start until after the 2024 election.
“You can believe whatever you want about the 2020 election,” Kemp said. “That is your right. I understand that. I have no problem with that. But the thing is, that was three years ago.”
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