Donald Trump’s challengers for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination are converging on Atlanta to take part in a conservative conference, just days after prosecutors in the US city filed criminal charges against the former United States president.
Trump will not speak at The Gathering, an Atlanta event hosted by syndicated radio host Erick Erickson on Friday and Saturday, but several other GOP White House hopefuls will be in attendance.
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Six of the ex-president’s 2024 rivals are scheduled for onstage interviews with Erickson, an influential conservative who has been critical of Trump.
That includes Florida Governor Ron DeSantis – who is a distant second behind Trump in the race for the Republican nomination – and former US Vice President Mike Pence, who has increasingly criticised his ex-boss amid a string of criminal indictments against him.
Most recently, Trump and 18 of his allies were charged in Georgia this week over their efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 US election, which the former Republican president lost to Democratic President Joe Biden.
It was the second indictment against Trump this month related to election interference, and the fourth time he has been criminally charged so far this year.
He was indicted on federal election interference charges in early August, as well as on federal charges of mishandling classified documents in June. He also faces a state-level prosecution in New York linked to a hush-money payment made to a porn star.
Yet despite his legal troubles, Trump – who has denied any wrongdoing in all the cases and portrayed the charges as an effort to derail his 2024 campaign – retains solid support among Republican primary voters.
Experts have said many believe Trump’s claims that he is the victim of a politically motivated “witch hunt”.
“It’s hard for anybody to get any oxygen in the room with President Trump,” Terry Lathan, a former Alabama Republican Party chairwoman who has previously backed Trump but now supports DeSantis for the 2024 nomination, told The Associated Press news agency.
“Donald Trump can be exhausting,” Lathan said. “But people will walk on broken glass to vote for the guy.”
Back in Atlanta, Erickson – the organiser of The Gathering – said in his welcoming address on Friday morning that the event was meant to allow discussions that do not involve Trump and his drama – and said the ex-president would not be in attendance.
“This is our time to come together and hear from people why they’re running for office, why should we vote for you … what’s your vision,” Erickson said.
DeSantis, Pence, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley are set to appear in the Atlanta neighbourhood of Buckhead, a Republican-leaning enclave in an otherwise Democratic-dominated city, on Friday.
Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy will speak on Saturday.
Each candidate will join Erickson for a question-and-answer session, with the moderator promising a focus on issues, including artificial intelligence, Christian nationalism in the US, and dealing with China as a global rival.
Trump’s challengers will also have a chance to make their case directly to the American public next week, when the Republican Party holds its first televised debate of the 2024 campaign in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Wednesday’s event will give the White House hopefuls a chance to try to narrow the gap with Trump, who has suggested that he will not be attending, citing his sizeable lead over the other candidates.
“People know my Record, one of the BEST EVER, so why would I Debate? I’M YOUR MAN. MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!” Trump wrote on his Truth Social platform on Thursday.
The former president also cancelled a news conference planned for Monday, during which he had promised to release a report showing “irregularities” in the 2020 US elections in Georgia.
Trump, who still falsely claims that he lost the vote to Biden due to widespread fraud, said on Thursday that his lawyers will include the findings in legal filings instead.
Meanwhile, Al Jazeera’s John Hendren, reporting from Atlanta on Friday, said Trump has spoken about possibly holding a competing event at the same time as next week’s debate.
“But the issue is that he doesn’t have to [attend the debate] because he’s ahead [in] the polls,” said Hendren, pointing to recent polls that showed Trump with a double-digit lead over his closest GOP rival, DeSantis.
“And all these other candidates are going to be asked whether they support the [former] president despite his legal woes, and because he has so much support in the Republican base … many of them have been advised to offer support to Trump,” Hendren said.
“Very few of them have been critical of him.”