NEW YORK (AP) — The Republicans in the audience laughed when former President Donald Trump mocked a woman who accused him of rape. They cheered when he defended his role during the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol. And they applauded again after he said he was "honored" to "terminate Roe v. Wade."
Trump's defiant performance at the CNN town hall on Wednesday may ultimately hurt his standing with key groups of voters in next fall's general election, especially women, suburbanites and independents. But the reaction of those who attended also demonstrated his extraordinary grip on the conservative voters who will soon decide the fight for the GOP presidential nomination.
The magnitude of the challenge ahead for Trump's Republican rivals was clear as the former president repeatedly turned his greatest political liabilities into jokes and applause lines for the GOP base. On Thursday, a day after the town hall, Trump's Republican critics conceded they don’t know how to stop him.
“GOP voters want what Trump gave them last night — the lies, the personal attacks... and the confrontation with the media,” said Sarah Longwell, founder of the anti-Trump Republican Accountability Project. “I think it was an important wakeup call that Trump is still the likeliest GOP nominee. It's scary, but important we face it and do everything we can to keep him from becoming president again.”
The first votes of the GOP primary won't be cast until early next year and the nomination itself won't be formally decided until next summer. But early public polling suggests Trump is the overwhelming frontrunner. And so far, most of his Republican opponents have been unable, or unwilling, to use his most egregious behavior against him for fear that such attacks could alienate the same conservative voters they hope to win over.
Almost none of the GOP's 2024 class has seized on Trump's many legal entanglements, even after a jury this week found Trump liable for sexual abuse and defamation in a civil case brought by advice columnist E. Jean Carroll. The jury ordered Trump to pay her $5 million.
The verdict was met with silence from most of Trump's Republican competitors. Those forced to respond defended the former president.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, who is preparing to challenge Trump in the 2024 primary with a focus on evangelical voters, suggested in an NBC interview that any focus on the sexual abuse verdict was a distraction from more important issues like the economy and public safety.
Asked if he feels comfortable with someone who found liable of sexual abuse serving as president, Pence said, “I would tell you in my four and a half years serving alongside the president I never heard or witnessed behavior of that nature.”
It's much the same with the stunning violence on Jan. 6.
Pence, whose life was threatened that day, has been one of the only Republican presidential prospects willing to call out Trump for sparking the insurrection. Most have downplayed the incident given that most Republican voters believe Trump's false claims that sparked the attack despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary.
And on abortion restrictions, an issue that repelled women and other suburban voters in many high-profile elections last year, Trump won't likely suffer any consequences in the upcoming Republican primary for proudly claiming credit for the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. Quite the contrary. Some Republican opponents have staked out even more aggressive anti-abortion positions, understanding that primary voters overwhelmingly oppose abortion rights.
If Trump is vulnerable to any Republican attack, it may be related to his electability.
In the wake of the GOP's disappointing 2022 midterm performance, party leaders openly opined that Trump and his brand of politics have become toxic among the broader electorate, especially women, independents and college-educated suburban voters.
Such concerns may have faded in recent weeks, however, as the party rallies behind Trump in response to new legal entanglements.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is the latest Republican to try to weaken Trump by raising electability concerns.
In a memo shortly before the CNN town hall, DeSantis’ super PAC released a memo warning that a Trump nomination would be “a disaster” for the Republican Party at the ballot box.
“The data suggest that if Trump were to become the 2024 nominee, he will likely cost the GOP control of the House and multiple winnable seats in the Senate,” wrote Chris Wilson, head of data for the “Never Back Down” super PAC. “In a general election, Trump’s endorsements signal ideological extremism to non-Republicans and, ultimately, reduce moderate and Democratic support for Republican congressional candidates.”
It's far from certain that electability concerns alone will be enough to knock Trump from his dominant position in the Republican primary.
Democratic President Joe Biden appears to be eager for a re-match.
“It’s simple, folks. Do you want four more years of that?” Biden tweeted immediately after the CNN town hall.
Hours later, the Biden campaign released a video featuring Trump's description of Jan. 6 during the town hall as “a beautiful day.” At the bottom of the split-screen, Trump supporters on Jan. 6 are shown pummeling police officers fighting to defend the U.S. Capitol.
A handful of lower-profile Republicans are struggling to make the same case to GOP primary voters.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is actively preparing to launch another Republican presidential bid, targeted New Hampshire voters with Facebook ads during the CNN event that said Trump "PROVOKES VIOLENCE," "PAYS HUSH MONEY" and "ABUSES WOMEN".
“Is this really the conduct we want from the president of the United States?” the Christie ad asks.
Former Rep. Liz Cheney, who lost her reelection last fall after leading the congressional probe into Jan. 6, paid to run a 60-second ad in New Hampshire during the town hall focused on the insurrection.
“Donald Trump is the only president in American history who has refused to guarantee the peaceful transfer of power," Cheney says in the ad. “Donald Trump is a risk America can never take again.”
But if the Jan. 6 attack is a political liability for Trump in 2024, he doesn't seem worried.
In addition to describing the violence as “a beautiful day,” Trump also said at the town hall that he's "inclined to pardon many of” his supporters who were convicted of criminal charges after participating in the attack.
“They’re living in hell,” Trump said of his loyalists who sought to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power to Biden. “Many of them are just great people.”