By Steve Peoples
AP National Political Writer
NEW YORK (AP) The end of Labor Day weekend would typically mark the start of a furious sprint to the Iowa caucuses as candidates battle for their party’s presidential nomination. But as the 2024 campaign comes into greater focus, the usual frenzy is yielding to a sense of inevitability.
Among Republicans, Donald Trump is dominating the primary field, outpacing rivals with resumes as governors, diplomats and entrepreneurs that would normally prove compelling. The former president’s strength comes despite, or perhaps because of, multiple criminal indictments that threaten to overshadow any serious debate about the future of the country. And for now, the tens of millions of dollars that Republican rivals are pouring into the race are doing little to diminish Trump’s stature, fueling concerns among his GOP critics who fear the primary is essentially over before it begins.
As one troubled front-runner tightens his grip on the Republican nomination, President Joe Biden is on a glide path to victory on the Democratic side. The 80- year-old incumbent is facing only token opposition for the Democratic nomination despite concerns about his age and performance from many within his own party.
Whether voters like it or not, a Trump-Biden rematch may be on the horizon, raising the prospect of a deeply uncertain election season that only intensifies the nation’s political divide. Already, Trump is skipping his party’s presidential debates and his court appearances are sometimes drawing more attention than his campaign stops. And Biden has barely begun to campaign as he grapples with questions about his age and his son’s legal challenges.
"I just can’t imagine things markedly changing. So, it appears that past is prologue," California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, said in an interview, praising Biden’s record of achievement while warning his party against underestimating Trump’s political strength.
Newsom said concerns about Biden’s age "are fair game and the White House knows it."
"But if age equals results," he went on, "I’m looking forward to his 85th birthday."
On the Republican side, dread is building among some donors and party leaders who hoped conservative voters would move past Trump given the the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol he inspired and his serious legal challenges.
"A Trump-Biden rematch would be a disaster for the country. I’m very depressed about it," said Bobbie Kilberg, a prominent Republican donor who is supporting former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. She said it’s "scary" that so many voters in her party continue to support the former president. "I refuse to believe that Trump is our inevitable nominee."
There is time for the 2024 landscape to shift.
Four months remain before the first votes are cast in the Iowa caucuses and the general election is more than a year away. And recent history has plenty of examples of overlooked and seemingly overmatched candidates who proved the conventional wisdom wrong. Both Trump and Biden are among them.
There are also significant variables.
Abortion continues to scramble elections, even in GOP strongholds like Kansas, Kentucky and Ohio, as voters reject Republican efforts to restrict access to the procedure. A greater backlash is possible as the courts review access to a commonly used abortion pill.
And Trump is facing 91 felony charges in criminal proceedings unfolding in Washington, New York, South Florida and Atlanta. They involve everything from his handling of classified information to his efforts to overturn the 2020 election to orchestrating hush money payments to a porn actor.
The former president could be a convicted felon before the general election is decided next November. Still, party leaders, including most of his Republican primary opponents, have vowed to support him even if convicted. And nothing in the Constitution bars felons from assuming the presidency.
Leaders in both parties are willing to overlook liabilities.
Young Democrats of America President Quentin Wathum-Ocama concedes that young voters aren’t necessarily enthusiastic about a Trump-Biden rematch, but he hopes that Trump’s polarizing candidacy will give Democrats the energy Biden cannot.
"Yes, people want a younger generation of politicians. We’ve always talked about Joe Biden as, even he’s said, as a transitional figure in our political life," Wathum-Ocama said. "As much as we’re seeing folks, for whatever reason, may not be excited or whatever, to me, it comes back to democracy is on the line."
With virtually no exceptions, Democratic officials in Congress and in key states are publicly rallying behind Biden’s reelection.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Biden’s strongest challenger in the 2020 Democratic primary, endorsed Biden’s reelection bid hours after it was announced this spring. Biden enlisted other would-be rivals for his national advisory board. The group includes Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif.; Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Newsom in California.
Republicans have delighted in suggesting that Newsom plans to launch a primary challenge against Biden, something the California governor has repeatedly ruled out. That’s even as Newsom teases the possibility of a high-profile debate against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is among Trump’s top Republican challengers.
Meanwhile, in a show of confidence, the Trump campaign has already begun to pivot toward a general election matchup against Biden.
His team says he currently plans to skip all Republican presidential debates, sensing few consequences for skipping the first one last month. DeSantis, once thought to be a potent threat, has struggled to live up to expectations.
Trump’s relationships across the party and his expansive political machine have made it extremely difficult for others to break through.
"The president benefits from having led the party for the last eight years," said Brian Jack, Trump’s political director.