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Republican Shadow Campaign for 2020 Takes Shape as Trump Doubts Grow 

click to enlarge Vice President Mike Pence looks at President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, March 31, 2017. Pence appears to be cementing his status as Trump’s heir apparent, promoting himself as the conduit between Republican donors and the administration. - ERIC THAYER/THE NEW YORK TIMES
  • Eric Thayer/The New York Times
  • Vice President Mike Pence looks at President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, March 31, 2017. Pence appears to be cementing his status as Trump’s heir apparent, promoting himself as the conduit between Republican donors and the administration.

By JONATHAN MARTIN and ALEX BURNS
© 2017 New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON — Sens. Tom Cotton and Ben Sasse have already been to Iowa this year, Gov. John Kasich is eyeing a return visit to New Hampshire, and Mike Pence’s schedule is so full of political events that Republicans joke that he is acting more like a second-term vice president hoping to clear the field than a No. 2 sworn in a little over six months ago.

President Donald Trump’s first term is ostensibly just warming up, but luminaries in his own party have begun what amounts to a shadow campaign for 2020 — as if the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. weren’t involved.

The would-be candidates are cultivating some of the party’s most prominent donors, courting conservative interest groups and carefully enhancing their profiles. Trump has given no indication that he will decline to seek a second term.

But the sheer disarray surrounding this presidency — the intensifying investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and the plain uncertainty about what Trump will do in the next week — have prompted Republican officeholders to take political steps that are unheard-of so soon into a new administration.

Asked about those Republicans who seem to be eyeing 2020, a White House spokeswoman, Lindsay Walters, fired a warning shot: “The president is as strong as he’s ever been in Iowa, and every potentially ambitious Republican knows that.”

But in interviews with more than 75 Republicans at every level of the party, elected officials, donors and strategists expressed widespread uncertainty about whether Trump would be on the ballot in 2020 and little doubt that others in the party are engaged in barely veiled contingency planning.

“They see weakness in this president,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. “Look, it’s not a nice business we’re in.”

In most cases, the shadow candidates and their operatives have signaled that they are preparing only in case Trump is not available in 2020. Most significant, multiple advisers to Pence have already intimated to party donors that he would plan to run if Trump did not.

Kasich has been more defiant: The Ohio governor, who ran unsuccessfully in 2016, has declined to rule out a 2020 campaign in multiple television interviews, and has indicated to associates that he may run again, even if Trump seeks another term.


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