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Former president Donald Trump speaks in Clinton Township, Mich., on Sept. 27.Mike Mulholland/The Associated Press

Jon Gilmore, the chair of America Strong and Free Action, a conservative political financing organization, has a word of warning to his fellow Republicans. His party, he worries, has been blindsided by “some form of a magician or carnival barker.”

He is talking about Donald Trump.

“We’re being led down a road by an entertainer, versus someone who cares deeply about the principles of our party,” Mr. Gilmore said.

Mr. Trump is the clear favourite in the race to be named the next Republican presidential candidate. It has become an article of faith that the party has, for the better part of the past decade, belonged to him.

But the current Republican primary campaign marks the first time since Mr. Trump won the White House in 2016 that he has had to compete for Republican support against a group of candidates dedicated to getting rid of him and his style of politics.

One is Mr. Trump’s former vice-president, Mike Pence. Two are former governors, Chris Christie and Asa Hutchinson.

Mr. Gilmore, whose organization backs Mr. Hutchinson, said it is time to embark on “a different direction for the party.”

But among Mr. Trump’s challengers, those who have been most critical of him also have the worst favourability ratings with voters, opinion polls have shown.

Mr. Gilmore knows that better than most: Mr. Hutchinson was dropped from the second Republican nomination debate this week because of his poor standing in polls.

Denouncing Mr. Trump may not be a winning strategy at the moment, Mr. Gilmore acknowledged. “But I think it’s an important strategy from the standpoint of: somebody has to have the courage and be willing to say it.”

Because, he said, odds are that if Mr. Trump becomes the nominee he will, for a second time, lose against Joe Biden.

Mr. Trump has made himself such a fixture of American conservatism that it has grown difficult to conceive of a Republican Party in which neither he nor his brand of politics is dominant.

But Republicans as a whole have been unsuccessful since he was elected president, said Mike DuHaime, Mr. Christie’s former chief political strategist. The 2018 midterm vote was a “complete bloodbath,” Mr. DuHaime said.

In 2020, Mr. Trump lost the presidency, and the party lost the Senate and the House. “And in 2022 many of his handpicked candidates lost,” Mr. DuHaime added.

Mr. Trump enjoys an energetic core of supporters that has expanded in recent months, as criminal indictments against him have grown in number. Current polls suggest he has considerably more support than all other Republican candidates combined.

But Mr. DuHaime reads the polls differently. He sees a large swath of Republican voters looking for someone else. “They haven’t consolidated around one person,” he said. And that group of voters doesn’t include the moderates and Independents who have abandoned the party because of Mr. Trump.

Only with Mr. Trump gone, Mr. DuHaime argued, can the party seek to broaden its appeal.

When it comes to national elections, “Republicans win on policy in many cases,” he said. “But I don’t think they’re going to ever get to a policy discussion with Donald Trump, because he’s so self-centred.”

It’s not merely a question of Mr. Trump’s personality, but of the embittered, narrow view of politics he represents. Historians have drawn parallels between Mr. Trump and Pat Buchanan, the one-time presidential contender who proposed walling off the Mexican border nearly three decades ago, and has for many years argued that the U.S. should retreat from most foreign affairs to focus on its own business.

Mr. Buchanan preached an “America First” mandate, an idea that dates to 1940, when its original proponents were trying to keep the U.S. out of the Second World War.

In a famous 1992 speech to the Republican National Convention, Mr. Buchanan invoked abortion, gay marriage, the judiciary, female combat soldiers and “the raw sewage of pornography” as fronts in “a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as was the Cold War itself, for this war is for the soul of America.”

Mr. Buchanan helped to kindle an angry divisiveness that has found modern expression in the removal of books from libraries. But it has also, Mr. DuHaime argued, constrained the Republican Party.

“Grievance and anger politics just don’t play in many of the bigger, more diverse, more centrist states,” he said.

The attacks on Mr. Trump during the Republican primary have tested the limits of his dominance.

“There is a non-Trump sentiment within the party,” said Wayne MacDonald, who until 2019 was Republican chair in New Hampshire, a key state in primary voting.

The entire party would be better off if it had “a strong presidential candidate who can be out there campaigning and not sitting in a courtroom all the time,” he said.

Polls suggest that such arguments haven’t proven broadly convincing to conservative voters.

One possible explanation is simple: Republicans, broadly speaking, still love Donald Trump.

“It’s really difficult to criticize Trump effectively as a Republican. When Republicans try to do so, they can end up sounding like Democratic critics,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a political newsletter published by the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “And I just don’t think Republican voters want to hear that.”

Mr. Trump has skipped the Republican primary debates, and his absence has offered the remaining candidates a stage for political discussion stripped of the former president’s theatrics. Even so, Mr. Trump’s politics have remained influential. Candidates who have shaped themselves in his mould, like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and pharmaceutical entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, may be closer to the Republican future than those who reject Mr. Trump.

“When we rallied behind the cry to make America great again, we did not just hunger for a single man,” Mr. Ramaswamy said Wednesday, during the second Republican primary debate.

It was an unmistakable bid to be seen as a standard bearer for Mr. Trump’s legacy.

Predictions of Mr. Trump’s political demise have been consistently wrong, Mr. Kondik noted.

“Trump took the party in a more populist, gritty direction,” he said. “And that honestly feels like the direction of the party when he’s gone, too – whenever he is gone.”

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