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Ahead of South Carolina visit, Hutchinson calls DeSantis’ Ukraine position ‘naive’

Miami Herald logo Miami Herald 3/15/2023 Alex Roarty, Miami Herald

Potential GOP presidential candidate Asa Hutchinson on Wednesday criticized likely White House rival Ron DeSantis, saying it was “naive” for the Florida governor to declare that the United States doesn’t have a vital interest in the Ukraine-Russia war.

The Republican Party, Hutchinson said, “needs to have leaders who understand the importance of the strength of America and our utilization of that strength in the cause of freedom.”

“To dismiss this as something unimportant to the security of the United States is naive and not in our historic traditions,” he said in an interview with McClatchy.

In a statement to Fox News host Tucker Carlson earlier this week, DeSantis called the Ukraine-Russia war a “territorial dispute” that the United States should avoid further entanglement in, igniting controversy in a Republican Party traditionally aligned with a hawkish foreign policy. Some Republican leaders, including Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Marco Rubio of Florida, criticized the governor’s position.

Hutchinson said how much the United States should financially support Ukraine was a legitimate public debate, but he questioned whether DeSantis’ outright dismissal of the issue meant he would show a similar level of deference to a different country considering a territorial expansion — China.

“I mean, if you’re going to view this as a simple territorial dispute, do you view China taking over Taiwan as a territorial dispute?” Hutchinson said. “Do you view China’s aggressiveness in the South China Sea as something the U.S. should not worry about?

DeSantis’ statement to Fox News did not mention China, and the governor — widely seen as a likely entrant into the 2024 GOP presidential primary — has yet to outline his view on a potential conflict between China and Taiwan.

Hutchinson, who served as governor of Arkansas from 2015 to 2023, will travel to South Carolina later this week, speaking at the Vision ‘24 National Conservative Forum hosted in Charleston by the social conservative group Palmetto Family Council. He has said he expects to make a decision about a campaign in April, although he cautioned that he likely wouldn’t formally decide until later in the month.

So far, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and onetime President Donald Trump are the only major candidates to formally enter the 2024 GOP race, a field that could soon swell to include DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu and South Dakota Gov. Kristin Noem, among others.

Hutchinson acknowledged that with the likelihood of facing two candidates from South Carolina in Scott and Haley, in addition to former president Trump, the state could pose a difficult challenge. But he touted his own history in the state — he attended Bob Jones University in Greenville as an undergrad — and the history of early frontrunners to fall by the wayside as evidence that he would compete seriously in South Carolina’s primary.

“You’re going to have to analyze very carefully South Carolina and the role it’s going to play with those early favorites in the race. I see South Carolina as important, both in terms of traditional influence over the race but also … it could be a third- or fourth-place finish in South Carolina is a big deal. It just remains to be seen.”

Early polls of the 2024 primary show Trump and DeSantis drawing the most support among GOP voters, in many surveys by a significant margin over the rest of the field.

Hutchinson, who received the support of 1% of GOP voters in a CNN survey released this week, said he wasn’t fazed by their early lead and thought a larger field of candidates would benefit the party politically.

“There’s a lot of media attention in the race between two leading contenders there, but that shifts very quickly,” he said. “And I do believe that the GOP, that we should have multiple candidates in the race that help shape our message for 2024. It broadens our base versus narrows our base. And so I think it’s really important that this is not a race between two front-runners but it’s a race of ideas and we present our options to the Republican voters this year.”

Hutchinson, 72, has had a lengthy career in public service, serving as a U.S. attorney in Arkansas, the administrator for the Drug Enforcement Administration under former President George W. Bush and under secretary for the Department of Homeland Security before becoming a governor. More recently, he’s emerged as a forceful Trump critic, calling him the party’s “worst choice” for 2024 and urging him to exit the race if he’s indicted.

In an interview, however, he was also critical of DeSantis for being too similar to Trump.

“Whenever you look at Ron DeSantis and his first race for governor, he was really a creation of Donald Trump,” Hutchinson said. “And you look at their similar positions on the Ukraine war, and wanting to pull back from U.S. support of that. Those are issues I go a different direction on.”

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