Trump, the ultimate attention seeker, wages a campaign largely out of public view

The ex-president’s allies want his competition to drop out as they start focusing on Biden. But Trump’s team insists he’s not taking anything for granted.

Shortly after Miami Mayor Francis Suarez announced he was dropping his presidential bid, he found himself on the phone with someone who had paid him little attention up to that point: Donald Trump.

Suarez, who ran as a traditional conservative and did not vote for Trump in 2016 or 2020, had barely registered in the polls and spent all of 11 weeks campaigning. His departure from the race created nary a ripple. Those familiar with the call declined to reveal the specifics of what was discussed. But the fact that the runaway Republican frontrunner felt compelled to touch base with the also-ran offered a window into how Trump and his team view the race.

Trump is on what seems like a glidepath to the nomination. He has largely eschewed traditional day-to-day campaigning. And his social media missives toggle between attacks on his political opponents and laments about the legal troubles surrounding him.

But he’s not taking his eye entirely off the primary. In fact, he and his team are heavily engaged behind the scenes.

In recent weeks, Trump allies have worked with officials in various states to ensure that rules around the rewarding of delegates benefit them. Trump’s campaign has warned state party officials against dealing with super PACs, with an eye on choking off the efforts of Never Back Down, the super PAC supporting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Trump has worked donors in an attempt to either get their money or persuade them not to give to others. He’s had meetings with policy advisers and has churned out policy videos. He’s done tele-rallies. And Trump has made countless personal calls to Republican officials, like Suarez, in an effort to win their support.

“One thing is certain, no one is taking their eye off the ball, which right now, is about winning the nomination,” said an adviser to Trump, granted anonymity to speak more freely about the campaign’s approach.

The approach Trump’s team has adopted is a reflection of the unprecedented and unorthodox place his campaign is in. He has publicly taken on the posture of an incumbent, privately adopted the mindset of a fighter, all while trying to avoid the fate of a convict.

The results: A man who once couldn’t resist a camera or crowd is doing a lot of his work outside of public view. While he has worked the phones, Trump has done far less on-the-ground campaigning than his competitors, his campaign says in part due to his near-universal name recognition and constant media attention. He rejected the opportunity to appear at the first GOP debate and is unlikely to appear at the second debate, in California, which is hosted by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, an institution he has feuded with in the past.

“President Trump is outworking every single person in this race and it shows — he’s dominating in every single poll both nationally and statewide,” said Trump spokesperson Steven Cheung. “There is nobody who can come close to everything he has done and will do to ensure he’s the nominee and turn the focus to prosecuting Joe Biden’s disastrous record.”

Instead, he’s done spot appearances publicly. During the last debate, he counter-programmed the event by sitting for an interview with Tucker Carlson. According to one person close to the campaign, he might choose to hold a rally the evening of the second debate, although no decisions have been made.

Trump’s allied super PAC is largely mirroring this pick-and-choose your spots approach. Maga Inc. has spent more than $22 million on national advertising this year — more than any other campaign, and much of it focused on attacking DeSantis. But it has also periodically gone dark. And since Aug. 27, the super PAC has not aired a TV ad, according to ad tracking data. They stopped airing ads about DeSantis in late June.

Trump’s campaign insists he’s neither taking the primary lightly nor shifting his attention to the general. Susie Wiles and Chris LaCivita, the veteran GOP strategists running Trump’s campaign, blasted out a campaign memo to supporters this past week that boasted of Trump’s lead, but notably kept their target squarely on DeSantis and his operation.

Trump, ever superstitious, echoed the approach during a rally on Friday night in South Dakota with Gov. Kristi Noem, openly grappling with how much to shift his attention to the general.

“He’s gone so low in the polls. I’m not really watching him,” Trump said of DeSantis. “They say ‘sir, forget about him, he’s gone.’ I say nobody’s gone until it’s over, right?”

Noem endorsed Trump at the rally, where there were signs saying “TRUMP NOEM.” Their appearance on stage together fueled a round of veepstakes speculation, but his advisers say that such talk is wildly premature. They’ve taken notice of those Republicans who have — sometimes overtly — tried to position themselves to serve as a running mate. But they also note that Trump himself has seemed outright disinterested in the idea.

“The one thing I would say, nobody ever votes for the vice president,” Trump told POLITICO this spring when asked who he would want as running mate.

Trump’s team isn’t the only one trying to downplay the notion that the primary is all but decided. The candidates lagging behind him are too, pointing to evidence that Trump does not poll as strongly in early states as he does nationally. Hanging over the entire election are his numerous legal troubles, some aides privately note, which are unpredictable.

Still, Trump’s support among Republicans has only strengthened after each indictment. And in recent weeks, both he and his allies have called on others in the field to drop out or stop spending millions on their campaigns when that money could be used to thwart President Joe Biden.

“I’m of the mindset the rest of the field should just drop out,” said Ric Grenell, Trump’s former acting Director of the U.S. National Intelligence on Newsmax. “Let’s save the money to go after Joe Biden, Trump is so far ahead that it’s not even close.”

“This primary is over,” Kari Lake, the firebrand former gubernatorial candidate from Arizona, declared on X, the website formerly known as Twitter. “If the candidates at the kids table are truly interested in saving our country, they will suspend their campaigns & stop wasting donor money. It’s time to focus our energies on voter registration, lawfare, & ballot chasing.”

A winnowed field is what Trump’s GOP opponents want, too. Republican New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) — neither fans of Trump — have both called for the low polling candidates to drop out before Trump has the nomination locked down. The New Hampshire governor has said he plans to make an endorsement to help whittle down the field in an effort to defeat Trump.

“There are plenty of people that remember that snakebite of 2016 when Donald Trump wins the nomination, because there’s a lot of candidates that wouldn’t get out of that race,” said Matthew Bartlett, a Republican strategist and New Hampshire native.

“If you’re not viable, I think it is in their interest to be coalescing earlier than ever before,” he said. “And I think candidates and campaigns kind of get that – whether that happens is another question.”

But what actual impact a smaller field would have on Trump’s lead is difficult to know, and will depend, in part, on how alliances form once more candidates drop out. Trump wasn’t the only candidate to call Suarez after he dropped out. Others did too, with one notable exception. DeSantis, who has tussled with the Miami mayor, did not make a call.