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Republicans eye 2024 White House bids and debate post-Trump era as 2020 election ends

Four years ago, Sen. Marco Rubio made a bid for the White House. And four years from now, the Florida Republican might do it again.

Posted Updated

Manu Raju
, CNN Senior Congressional Correspondent
CNN — Four years ago, Sen. Marco Rubio made a bid for the White House. And four years from now, the Florida Republican might do it again.

"I ran for president once before, so clearly I'm not going to tell someone I'm not interested in running for president -- I already ran for it once," Rubio told CNN when asked if a 2024 bid was on his mind.

"But that's a decision I'll have to make at the appropriate time given what the world looks like, what my life looks like, my service here and what work remains to be done," Rubio, who struggled to gain traction in the 2016 primary, said in the Capitol.

The 2020 election is now here -- but in Washington, another election is always around the corner. And no matter what happens with President Donald Trump's reelection bid, the GOP is bound to engage in an intense battle about its future direction: whether to align itself with Trump's hardline politics catering to the party's base or return to a more moderate, pro-business message to broaden the GOP's tent.

If Trump wins reelection, Republicans expect jockeying over 2024 to take time to play out. But if Trump loses, the focus will quickly shift to a group of ambitious Republicans who are likely to be considered as potential White House hopefuls and will help chart the course for the post-Trump era of the Republican Party.

The names will include a host of current and former Trump administration officials, such as Vice President Mike Pence, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The debate will include GOP governors, such as Florida's Ron DeSantis, Maryland's Larry Hogan and South Dakota's Kristi Noem.

And the spotlight will follow a suite of Republican senators who are likely to consider White House bids, including Rubio, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton.

Cotton, who is cruising to reelection this year and facing no Democratic candidate, has spent money on TV ads in key battleground states to help Trump, barnstormed for Republicans in tough races in Montana, Michigan and Georgia -- and swung by early primary states Iowa and New Hampshire to appear with candidates.

Asked if those visits to early primary states were part of a campaign to prepare for 2024, Cotton contended he was trying to help Republicans in key House and Senate races. "I'm trying to hold on to the Senate and the House," he told CNN, while ignoring a question about his potential interest in running for the White House.

But Cotton, who has long been viewed as a potential Cabinet secretary in Trump's administration, could be on a shortlist for a new job if the President wins reelection, impacting the timing of any 2024 announcement.

Others are also likely to eye a presidential campaign.

Cruz, who has reemerged as an outspoken deficit hawk in the GOP this year, saying this summer he was a "hell no" as Republicans proposed spending another $1 trillion to prop up the economy, also is widely viewed as a likely contender for the White House, having lost to Trump in a vicious primary fight four years ago.

Cruz wouldn't entertain questions about his 2024 ambitions.

"Let's get through Election Day this year first," he said outside the Capitol.

Indeed, how Tuesday shapes up for the GOP will have a major bearing on the debate within the party about whether and how to shift course from the scorched-earth nature of Trump's presidency.

If Republicans lose up and down the ticket, there will be a loud chorus of calls to change course and begin to woo more moderate voters, including minorities, women and younger Americans -- something the party tried to do with a top-to-bottom autopsy conducted by the Republican National Committee after Mitt Romney's 2012 election loss to President Barack Obama.

Romney, now a Utah senator, told CNN last month that the GOP failed to follow that course and is now "in trouble" with key blocs of voters.

"I look at my race back in 2012 and there was a postmortem done about what we would do to get our party back in line with more of our voters," Romney said. "And we haven't taken that direction."

No matter what happens on Tuesday, other Republicans want a more concerted focus on the debt and deficit, issues that have been largely ignored during the Trump years but became a focal point for huge fights between Republicans and Obama during his time in office.

"It just seemed to drop off the radar. ... It's like no one is paying attention to it anymore -- and it's worse than ever," Sen. James Lankford, an Oklahoma Republican, said of the debt.

Yet a number of Republicans argue that Trump has been successful in politics because he tapped into concerns from working class Americans about the GOP's support for policies catering to big businesses, something they contend led to jobs being shipped overseas. These Republicans argue that no matter what happens on Tuesday, the GOP should continue to seize on that message.

Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri told CNN he would have "major concerns" about a return to a more expansive embrace of economic globalization, immigration and trade.

"I'm worried about any attempt that will try to go back to the days our policy was basically set by Wall Street," Hawley said. "I think a lot of people in the Republican establishment want to go back to that kind of liberal globalism -- and I think that would be a huge, huge mistake."

Hawley, a 40-year-old former Missouri attorney general, also threw cold water on a possible 2024 run, telling CNN: "I'm not" considering a White House bid in four years.

Asked if a run were in the cards, Hawley said flatly: "It's not."

Some senators will face complicated decisions right away. Rubio, who faces reelection in 2022, may have to make a decision on running to keep his Senate seat -- and then immediately running for president right after the midterm elections that year. Or, if he wants to set his sights exclusively on the White House, the senator may believe it makes sense to forgo a reelection run altogether.

"I guess I learned over the last six years, sometimes you really can't cross a bridge if you don't know which bridge you're crossing," Rubio said.

Other Republicans could face pressure to jump in as well. Sen. Tim Scott, the Senate's lone Black Republican, who had a prime speaking role at the party's national convention this summer, has been viewed as a possible White House contender.

But South Carolina's junior Republican senator said "not at all" when asked if he was thinking about a 2024 run. "The best thing for me to plan for is reelection," referring to his 2022 bid to keep his seat.

"I know that people start planning for a run for the White House around the eighth grade, or something like that, I hear," Scott said. "I'm going to move to a ministry when this is all said and done. I want to keep my integrity."

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