Former President Donald Trump arrives to speak at Mar-a-lago in Palm Beach, Florida, on Election Day, November 8, 2022.
CNN  — 

In the two months since Donald Trump launched his third presidential campaign, potential rivals have been casting doubt over his inevitability as the GOP nominee – whispering from the sidelines that he has lost his touch, that there are cracks in his base, that his strange absence from the campaign trail will cost him later on.

But diminished or not, Trump has still managed to inspire a game of chicken. His most likely competitors want to go toe-to-toe with him eventually – just not at the outset of their campaigns.

While nearly a dozen 2024 campaign operatives and advisers who spoke to CNN on the condition of anonymity insisted that Trump’s political appeal is more limited than ever, most said they still wouldn’t want their horse to be first in the race after him. Their reasons vary. Some worry about sustainability, wanting to saturate the airwaves just before the early contests in Iowa and New Hampshire instead of burning through cash to build name ID while Trump is pummeling them on his Truth Social platform without distraction. Others are hesitant to subject themselves to the concentrated attacks they would no doubt face from the former president and other potential rivals if they were next to jump in, unsure if the earned media in a two-person field would work for or against them.

It’s a stark contrast from four years ago. By the end of January 2019, nine Democrats had already announced their 2020 presidential campaigns or exploratory committees, including future Vice President Kamala Harris, underscoring just how sleepy the 2024 cycle has been for Republicans so far.

“The opportunity for anyone to shine is when they are man-to-man with Trump,” veteran GOP strategist Rob Stutzman said. “Any one of these guys can deliver the message that Republicans have been losing a lot lately and that Trump cost us the Senate and the last two elections through his poor judgment. The question is, who wants to go out and be the first to say that?”

“I’m not sure that any 2024 prospective or potential candidate is really incentivized to announce early on,” said an adviser to former Vice President Mike Pence, who is widely expected to run.

Ultimately, the calculations being made by likely 2024 contenders and their allies speak volumes about how they perceive the 45th president as well as each other. And it is all unfolding as Trump, who announced his bid just a week after his party’s underwhelming midterm election, plows ahead, surrounded by minimal staff, who have perplexed allies with some of their recent decisions. That includes failing to stop a dinner he hosted with White supremacist Nick Fuentes around Thanksgiving or his recent broadsides against anti-abortion conservatives. Trump has sought to capitalize on his 11th-hour rescue of Kevin McCarthy, who failed on 14 ballots before finally being elected House speaker after the former president made a fresh round of calls to McCarthy’s detractors. But some allies believe his lack of campaign travel and early missteps have created an opening for alternative candidates.

“If he was still an 800-pound gorilla, I don’t think a lot of these people would ultimately get in, but the change of tune we’re seeing from [Nikki] Haley and others – they’re not doing that because he’s strong,” said a person close to Trump who spoke with him recently. Haley, a once popular governor of South Carolina during the tea party movement and Trump’s own former United Nations ambassador, has recently moved the goal posts on her willingness to run against her old boss. She told a group of Jewish Republican donors in late November that she would consider a 2024 bid “in a serious way” – a year and a half after declaring in an April 2021 press conference, “I would not run if President Trump ran.”

A second person close to Trump said the former president doesn’t mind being the only declared candidate so far but is ready and eager to take on challengers, especially those who served in his administration or for whom he has played an integral role in their political careers.

Of course, no potential rival has drawn Trump’s ire as much as Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor who soared to popularity among conservatives after waging war against public health officials and bureaucrats during the coronavirus pandemic and more recently against “woke” corporations. Trump, who was scrutinized by allies and donors shortly before the midterms for dismissing his home-state governor as “DeSanctimonious” during a campaign stop, has continued to gripe about DeSantis’ unofficial coronation as his heir apparent since announcing his own presidential campaign.

“Obviously, DeSantis owes a lot of his political capital to Donald Trump, but that’s different than serving in an administration and being a foot soldier for him until the very end, if not beyond that,” said the person who spoke with Trump recently.

Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung said the former president is working to build a campaign that lasts through “the next 22 months” and will be making announcements in the next few weeks on upcoming political events. “This isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon,” Cheung said.

DeSantis’ waiting game

So far, DeSantis has been operating on his own timeline – a luxury afforded to him after his 19-point reelection victory in November further fortified his position as the leading Trump alternative.

The Republican-controlled Florida legislature will begin its next regular session in March, during which DeSantis is expected to push for legislation to expand gun ownership rights, impose new restrictions on abortion access and curb the power of teachers’ unions in his state, according to two sources familiar with his plans. Florida lawmakers are also expected to consider repealing a law that would force DeSantis to resign as governor if he chose to compete in the 2024 presidential primary.

“DeSantis has all the time in the world and can use time to his benefit. He can lay out his agenda through the legislative session and continue to build out his fundraising and political apparatus,” said one of the people familiar with his plans.