With three denizens of the Republican establishment launching presidential campaigns this week, the race for the 2024 nomination has begun to resemble the sprawling 2016 field that proved a huge boon to unfancied outsider Donald Trump.

This time the 76-year-old tycoon is the runaway frontrunner but the conventional wisdom remains the same: the larger the chasing pack, the more likely he is to win by dividing the anti-Trump vote.

Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who was trounced by Trump in 2016, is expected to launch a fresh tilt at the White House on Tuesday, a day ahead of ex-vice president Mike Pence and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum.

Christie, who will announce in New Hampshire, presents a novel challenge as the only contender so far willing to land genuinely damaging blows on Trump as he makes his case for four years in the Oval Office.

The 60-year-old Newark native has already begun needling his former friend, arguing last month that the former reality TV star and real estate tycoon was “afraid” of debating serious opponents.

Trump has indicated that he may skip at least one of the first two debates, expressing a reluctance to share the limelight with lower-polling rivals.

“If he really cares about the country—and I have deep questions about that—but if he really cares about the country, then he’s going to get up there, and he shouldn’t be afraid,” Christie told radio host Hugh Hewitt.

The former federal prosecutor came in sixth in New Hampshire seven years ago and eventually endorsed Trump, serving as a key advisor before the pair had a high-profile falling out.

‘Ton of coverage’

Christie has since assailed Trump on all manner of issues, highlighting the escalating criminal probes targeting the embattled billionaire, trashing his false claims of election fraud and dubbing him “Putin’s puppet” over his isolationist stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Trump revealed that he relishes the chaos of a crowded field when he welcomed his first serious opponent, former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, to the race in February, telling Fox News: “The more the merrier.”

But John Ellis, a former head of the network’s Election Night Decision Desk, told AFP Christie’s candidacy could put Trump on the back foot.

“Because he will attack Trump relentlessly, Christie’s campaign will get a ton of coverage in the mainstream press, which may help him do well in New Hampshire,” said Ellis, founder of the News Items current affairs newsletter.

“Favorable press coverage catapulted John McCain’s presidential campaign in New Hampshire in 2000. Christie is making the same bet. Regardless, having someone hammering you every day is never helpful to the frontrunner.”

By midweek there will be 10 major candidates in the Republican primary and another four also-rans, but Trump has a 30-plus point lead over his closest rival, Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor.

Pence, Trump’s unwaveringly loyal vice president turned reluctant critic, is expected to launch his campaign on Wednesday, ahead of a CNN Town Hall in Iowa.

‘Last man standing’

His launch, along with Christie’s, complicates the race less for Trump than for DeSantis, who has been on a charm offensive in the first-in-the-nation voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire as he bids to remain competitive.

The governor’s efforts to keep the emphasis on “charm” rather than “offensive”—softening the edges of reputation for aloofness—were undermined Thursday by a temper tantrum he had at a reporter in the lakeside town of Laconia.

The hardline conservative is running to Trump’s right in what political analysts have called a “last man standing” campaign that banks on the former president being taken out of contention by the escalating legal threats he faces.

The strategy, according to the theory, is essentially to keep Trump’s supporters content by avoiding too much conflict and being best placed to mop them up when their man is forced to bow out.

But 44-year-old DeSantis has also begun to fire off explicit broadsides against his rival, questioning the frontrunner’s commitment to conservatism, his effectiveness in office and his prospects of victory against President Joe Biden.

Liberals watching the race with a mixture of amusement and horror have been split between those cheering on Trump, believing he will be the easiest one to beat in the general election, and those who would rather see anyone else prevail, even if it means losing the White House.

“The opponents in the Republican primary can try their hardest, but if rape allegations and an insurrection couldn’t waiver Trump’s base, these candidates will not either,” Democratic election strategist Amani Wells-Onyioha told AFP.