WASHINGTON — Newly announced GOP presidential candidate Asa Hutchinson has a strategy for dealing with Donald Trump if the Republican who has a penchant for name-calling decides to attack him: call it out and absorb the blows.
Trump is known for cutting down his opponents with withering insults and tough-to-shake nicknames, but the former Arkansas governor says he’s ready to take on the former president.
“I have no doubt that he will, whenever you become a threat, and all you can do is answer it, and also absorb some of the blows,” Hutchinson told USA TODAY on Sunday. “The voters are pretty smart. They know Trump’s tactics and how he approaches things.”
Hutchinson said he expects voters to “see through” much of Trump’s rhetoric and make their own decisions.
“You have to have, in the end, a confidence in the voters and how they handle negative attacks,” Hutchinson added.
Trump did not immediately comment on Hutchinson’s 2024 announcement, and his campaign did not respond to a request for comment. The former president instead used his social media presence to take digs at another likely challenger, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and bemoan the legal proceedings that led to his recent indictment.
Even without an acknowledgement from Trump, Hutchinson’s announcement on Sunday that he is joining the fight for the GOP nomination jolted the race that has largely revolved around the ex-president.
Hutchinson, who will formally launch his bid on April 26, said he’s running because he disagrees with President Joe Biden’s policies on energy, border security and the economy.
“Now, secondary to that is, who the Republicans are going to put up as our nominee, and who can best lead the country,” he said, “and I don’t believe that is Donald Trump, because of how democracy was undermined on January 6, how his focus on the past has dominated the discussions and how he seems to lead with chaos versus the best interests of the country.”
Trump is set to be arraigned on Tuesday on criminal charges stemming from the Manhattan district attorney’s investigation into a hush-money payment made by the ex-president’s former legal fixer to cover up an alleged affair.
He is also under investigation in Georgia for pressuring an official to find enough votes to overturn his 2020 election loss and by a special counsel who is reviewing Trump’s conduct amid the Jan. 6 insurrection and his handling of classified documents.
Trump facing ‘serious’ investigations
Hutchinson has said he views the legal drama as a “distraction” to the GOP’s efforts to win back the White House and encouraged Trump to drop out of the race.
But the former U.S. attorney said Sunday, as he made a concerted effort to win over Trump’s voters and explain his own rationale for running, that he thinks the issues involving the Republican frontrunner will be decided by the electorate.
“Nobody wants to see a former president indicted, and I think these issues ought to be resolved at the ballot box,” he told USA TODAY. “And I think that’s ultimately where they will be resolved. And that’s one of the reasons that I’m in the race.”
Hutchinson said the issues at stake in the other cases are “more serious,” based on what is known at this point, than the document fraud charges.
“I think the issues that are being investigated in Georgia are serious, as well as the investigation that’s being done for the handling, or mishandling, of classified information,” Hutchinson said.
The former federal prosecutor said he would not have brought the New York case. “So we’re waiting to see what the facts are, but I have not been impressed,” he said, “with the likelihood of success in that case thus far.”
Although he is opposed to the former president becoming the party’s standard-bearer in the 2024 election, Hutchinson also says he is not “anti-Trump” and views the distinction as being unhelpful to directing support away from the former GOP leader.
“I just see anti-Trump as not recognizing some of the good things that happened in his administration and failing to recognize that he has a base of support that are simply conservatives that want a bright future for our country, and I don’t want to distance those voters. You want to appeal to those voters,” he said.
Hutchinson said he is “in a different lane” than not only Trump but other announced candidates, including former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, and unannounced contenders such as former Vice President Mike Pence.
“We’re going to strike the differences and we’re all going to be campaigning, but I don’t consider myself anti-Nikki Haley. I don’t consider myself anti-Mike Pence. I consider myself as a competitor and with a unique voice in this race,” he said.
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Hutchinson sees a pathway through Iowa, Super Tuesday states
The unpredictability of this particular election cycle, with charges and investigations pending against Trump and potential candidates holding off on their announcements, helped motivate Hutchinson to present himself as an alternative choice in a race that surveys show the former president may win.
He said New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu’s decision will affect the relevance of the first-in-the nation primary state for other candidates as they decide how aggressively to compete there. South Carolina is also in flux, he said, because of Haley’s candidacy and the possibility she’ll be duking it out in the state with South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott.
“Iowa is the first state, but it’s also the state that right now does not have any favorite son or daughter that’s running, and so that’s an open environment. I think that means that it’s an important state for me but also for other candidates,” Hutchinson said.
It traditionally holds the GOP’s first caucus and is followed by contests in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. Trump came in second in Iowa in 2016, then cruised to a victory in the next three.
The dynamics of the 2024 race could create an opening on Super Tuesday, when a large portion of the contests are held, for a sleeper candidate to surge.
“And I do think that when you look at the narrowing of the field as time goes on that you’re going to be looking at the Super Tuesday states, and that includes California. And so people shouldn’t look for this to be wrapped up in February. It will continue a while,” Hutchinson said. “And the strategy will develop depending upon who else gets in there and where the best chances to collect delegates will be.”
DeSantis is the only potential candidate whose support has rivaled Trump’s in the early months of the competition. He is anticipated to address his 2024 plans after Florida concludes its legislative session in May.
In an interview with USA TODAY last month, Hutchinson said he disagreed with DeSantis’ handling of Disney, saying “it’s not the state’s business to dictate to companies in minutiae of what their policy should be.”
He said Sunday after he announced his candidacy that while he expects DeSantis to run, he is focused on his own campaign strategy and messaging.
“It’s very early in this presidential cycle, and so time will tell, and all I’m going to do is not go after somebody else. I’ll try to show distinctions in our policies but want to be able to focus on a very optimistic view of our future,” he said.
That does not mean that Hutchinson, who left office in January after serving two terms as governor, will shy away from making his case to voters when the time comes about why they should choose him over the Florida politician.
“Because I would make a better leader for this country,” he said.
Francesca Chambers is a White House Correspondent for USA TODAY. Follow her on Twitter @fran_chambers.