OXON HILL, Md. — Inside the MAGA-clad corridors of this week’s Conservative Political Action Conference, the politics of the Republican Party seemed almost unchanged from the pinnacle of Donald J. Trump’s presidency. Sequin-wearing superfans jostled for selfies with whichever member of the Trump family happened to be nearby. Chants of “We love Trump!” rang out in the halls.
But outside the confines of the friendly gathering, Mr. Trump and his campaign have begun adjusting to the new reality of 2024: The former president may be the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, but he is no longer the singular leader of his party.
After a fitful start, the Trump operation is now actively preparing for the possibility of a drawn-out 2024 primary. That means laying the groundwork to compete in a potential fight over delegates that could extend deep into next year. And it means shadowboxing with his ascendant but not-yet-official challenger, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, over donors and endorsements from inside their shared home state and beyond.
This is grunt work Mr. Trump was slow to undertake in his celebrity-powered, but scattershot, campaign in 2016. In 2020, he used his incumbency to scare off any serious challenges.
On the third time around, the Trump campaign’s focus on the traditional nuts and bolts is an acknowledgment of the race’s expected competitiveness. Despite an unmatched standing as a former president and an early edge in the polls, Mr. Trump’s liabilities — including the threat of indictments — could turn the race into a prolonged and bitter fight.
On Saturday, when Mr. Trump addresses CPAC, the annual showcase of right-wing activists and energy, the moment is expected to showcase his strength: the enduring loyalty of a vocal segment of the party. The speech will be just his fourth public event since his campaign began almost 16 weeks ago. But Mr. Trump is now ramping up his public schedule, with planning underway for his first major 2024 rally and two policy speeches this month, according to two people familiar with the planning.
Notably, Mr. DeSantis, who is expected to run but has not declared his intentions yet, skipped CPAC, instead setting out on a multistate tour to promote his new book about his leadership in Florida as a national model. On Sunday, Mr. DeSantis will deliver a speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California about his vision for the party.
Both men have trips planned to Davenport, Iowa, in the next two weeks — visiting the state that begins the nominating process.
“President Trump is still the leading candidate,” said Charlie Gerow, a Republican strategist and the vice chairman of CPAC. “But it’s a much more wide-open race than it has been in the past.”
In public and in private, Mr. Trump has already begun taking swipes at Mr. DeSantis and has signaled that the intensity of those attacks is likely to rise. Mr. Trump’s campaign spent a small sum this week to run its first Facebook ads aimed at Mr. DeSantis, including one with a picture of both men and the caption: “Pictured: An Apprentice Learning from the Master.”
Who’s Running for President in 2024?
The race begins. Four years after a historically large number of candidates ran for president, the field for the 2024 campaign is starting out small and is likely to be headlined by the same two men who ran last time: President Biden and former President Donald J. Trump. Here’s who has entered the race so far, and who else might run:
Mr. DeSantis has mostly ignored the taunting, though during an appearance on Fox News, he took an oblique shot at the infighting that plagued Mr. Trump’s White House by talking about how his governorship “didn’t have a single leak.”
On Thursday evening, Mr. DeSantis addressed a donor retreat hosted by the Club for Growth, a major spender in G.O.P. politics, in Palm Beach, just miles from Mr. Trump’s own Mar-a-Lago club in Florida. For an event featuring several potential 2024 candidates, the group pointedly did not invite Mr. Trump.
The shift in the political dynamics can be seen clearly in the Trump operation’s nascent delegate strategy.
Ahead of 2020, the Trump campaign successfully played the role of the party establishment. From their perch at the White House, his aides shaped state parties’ rules to make it harder for challengers to accumulate delegates. The goal — which they achieved — was to strangle any primary challenges before they could develop.
Heading into 2024, the Trump team’s outlook is very different. With memories of the 2016 efforts to stop Mr. Trump’s victory in mind, they have been canvassing state parties to hunt for opportunities to shape convention and delegate rules to Mr. Trump’s advantage.
Though people involved in the effort said no lobbying for rule changes had yet occurred, the Trump team has begun calling officials of state parties and has dispatched staff members to attend some party gatherings.
The Trump campaign isn’t alone in preparing for a delegate fight. Other prominent Republicans, including Ken Cuccinelli, a former Virginia attorney general and a top delegate expert, have been discussing amendments to the delegate rules, according to a person familiar with the matter. Mr. Cuccinelli declined to comment, saying only that he was not publicly committed to a candidate.
There is no modern precedent for a former president’s competing in a contested primary, making it difficult to project Mr. Trump’s political strength going forward.
But there are signs of his diminished influence in the party. The former president’s grass-roots fund-raising has dropped off considerably: In 2021, when Mr. Trump spoke at CPAC in his first major speech after the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, he raised $3.2 million online in the 48 hours around the speech.
He raised roughly half as much online — $1.6 million — the day of and the day after his 2024 announcement late last year, according to federal records.
What’s more, there is a lack of public support so far from some of his longest-serving aides. On a call weeks ago, Mr. Trump asked Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders of Arkansas, his former White House press secretary, to endorse him, and she replied that she would not yet do so, according to two people briefed on the discussion, who asked not to be named discussing the private call. Mr. Trump was disappointed but not angry in response on the call, the people said.
An aide to the governor did not respond to a request for comment, and Steven Cheung, a spokesman for Mr. Trump, did not address the matter directly, saying that Mr. Trump had support from “everyday Americans” and was “leading by wide margins in poll after poll.”
Mr. Trump received some good news recently when Ike Perlmutter, a billionaire businessman who has supported both Mr. Trump and Mr. DeSantis, signaled that he would support the Trump campaign in 2024, according to one person familiar with the discussions. Mr. Perlmutter did not respond to a request for comment.
Some major Republican donors have begun giving to Mr. DeSantis, even without a formal campaign to support. In mid-February, Joe Ricketts, the billionaire founder of TD Ameritrade and a past top Trump donor, donated $1 million to Mr. DeSantis’s state PAC.
Roy Bailey, a longtime Republican fund-raiser for Mr. Trump, attended a recent donor retreat Mr. DeSantis held in Palm Beach — and came away impressed. “He is seasoned, sophisticated and a true leader,” he said.
But Mr. Bailey said he remained unaligned in 2024. “Like everyone else, I’m tiptoeing into the political season,” he said.
The Club for Growth has not been so cautious. Its snubbing of Mr. Trump at the weekend donor retreat was part of an ongoing public feud led by the group’s president, David McIntosh.
The fight has irked the former president — who sent Mr. McIntosh an expletive-laden text message through an aide in August — but not the group’s board of directors. On Thursday, the board took a closed-door vote on whether it stood by Mr. McIntosh. He received unanimous support.
In his speech on Thursday, Mr. DeSantis boasted about his political successes in Florida and his use of power to crush his ideological adversaries, according to an audio recording obtained by The New York Times. He swiped at other Republicans who “just sit back like potted plants and they let the media define the terms of the debate.”
“They say that the best defense is a good offense sometimes,” Mr. DeSantis said.
Kimberly Guilfoyle, who is Donald Trump Jr.’s fiancée and who oversaw parts of the fund-raising operation for the 2020 Trump campaign, downplayed donor defections to Mr. DeSantis. “There’s one or two there,” she said in an interview, “but nobody I personally handled or dealt with.”
Nikki Haley, the formed United Nations ambassador and Mr. Trump’s top declared rival, spoke at CPAC on Friday, receiving a friendly if tepid reception in the hall. Another potential 2024 candidate, Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state, also spoke. Neither directly addressed Mr. Trump’s presence in the race, preferring indirect references about generational change and electability.
The sheer volume of Trump paraphernalia at CPAC was a stark reminder of Mr. Trump’s unmatched hold on grass-roots activists and the steep challenge facing any potential rival to a former president. The conference’s exhibition hall was something of a Trump bazaar: A pro-Trump super PAC set up a replica of the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, there was also a glittering array of election-denial accessories was for sale, and activists manned a booth urging attendees to support people prosecuted in the Jan. 6 riot.
“DeSantis is a great governor, probably the best governor in the nation,” said Sarah Palin, the former Republican vice-presidential candidate. But, she added, “Nobody can compare to Trump.”
Jonathan Swan contributed reporting.