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Republicans are reluctant to criticize Trump even while aiming to replace him


Republican presidential candidates will square off tomorrow night in Milwaukee at the GOP's first presidential debate. Last night, the RNC announced the eight participants. It's a range of names, some well-known, like Ron DeSantis and Mike Pence, some less familiar, like South Dakota Governor Doug Burgum. And you've probably heard by now that the biggest name in the race, Trump, won't be there.

It can be hard to campaign as a Republican when your name isn't Trump. NPR's Don Gonyea heard why that is first-hand when he spoke with voters at recent candidate events. He found that among Republicans, there's a reluctance to criticize Trump even while making the case to replace him.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: GOP presidential hopeful Tim Scott can be seen as a prime example of why challengers to Donald Trump aren't getting much traction. At the Iowa State Fair, the South Carolina senator held a brief Q&A with reporters who wanted his reaction to the latest criminal indictment of the front-runner. Scott's response could have been scripted by the Trump campaign.

TIM SCOTT: We see the legal system being weaponized against political opponents. That is un-American and unacceptable. And at the end of the day, we need a better system than that. And I, frankly, hope to be the president of the United States, where we have an opportunity to restore confidence and integrity in all of our departments of justice.

GONYEA: Similar answers have come from the vast majority of GOP hopefuls with just a few exceptions. There's former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, whose entire campaign has been about calling Trump unfit. Christie, however, isn't even bothering to compete in Iowa. That leaves former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson as one of the few candidates willing to speak out against Trump in the state.

ASA HUTCHINSON: I said a year ago that Donald Trump is disqualified from being president of the United States as a result of his actions. He's morally responsible. Now we'll see if he's criminally responsible. That's a question for the law and for the jury.

GONYEA: But even now, with four Trump indictments, a new Iowa poll from the Des Moines Register, NBC News and Mediacom has Trump still leading significantly. Challenger Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor, is more than 20 points behind. Tim Scott is in third with less than 10%. Asa Hutchinson, meanwhile, is among a group of candidates each polling at zero in Iowa. Still, Trump does fall well below 50% of the vote, a fact that may - may - leave an opening for another candidate. And voters who are looking for just that are actually not that hard to find. Take 51-year-old Ardean Schill (ph) of Marion, Iowa. He's a conservative who voted for Trump in the past two elections. This time?

ARDEAN SCHILL: I think it's time for a change.

GONYEA: OK, explain.

A SCHILL: It's time to bring the country back together. I don't think he's the individual that can bring this country back together.

GONYEA: His wife, Katie Schill, agrees but makes it clear she's not condemning Trump even as she looks for a new candidate.

Same question to you. You voted for Trump?


GONYEA: But you're not there now?

K SCHILL: No, no. He's not someone that can bring everybody back together. And not only that, there's too many attacks on him. He can't focus on what he needs to do.

GONYEA: Both say they like Trump's policies as president, but they're still making up their mind regarding the Republican field. Next stop on the campaign trail is tomorrow night in Milwaukee, the first debate. And Trump says he's skipping the event. Instead, he's doing an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson via social media. Still, look for much of the debate to focus on Trump even in his absence.

Don Gonyea, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.