A state high court’s decision that the Republican front-runner for the White House is disqualified from office might seem like a pretty good opening for his ostensible G.O.P. challengers.
But in an era of smashmouth politics, ushered in by former President Donald J. Trump, only Mr. Trump appears capable of smashing anyone in the mouth. So, with under four weeks before the Iowa caucuses, the Colorado Supreme Court’s ruling on Tuesday — that Mr. Trump was disqualified from the state’s primary ballot under a section of the 14th Amendment that holds that “no person shall” hold “any office, civil or military” who has “engaged in insurrection or rebellion” — was apparently off limits.
Mr. Trump still seems to be the one setting the parameters for legitimate debate in the G.O.P., even if he doesn’t participate in the party’s actual debates.
“We don’t need to have judges making these decisions,” Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor who is rising in the polls but still far behind Mr. Trump, told reporters in Agency, Iowa, on Tuesday.
Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida not only refrained from attacking his chief rival, but he also spun out a conspiracy theory to suggest the ruling was a plot against him to aid Mr. Trump.
“What the left and the media and the Democrats are doing — they’re doing all this stuff, to basically solidify support in the primary for him, get him into the general, and the whole general election is going to be all this legal stuff,” Mr. DeSantis said on Wednesday, speaking at the Westside Conservative Club Breakfast in Iowa.
At a restaurant outside Des Moines, he asked reporters, “We’re going to be litigating this stuff for how many more years going forward? I think we’ve got to start focusing on the people’s issues.”
Vivek Ramaswamy, the entrepreneur who has clung most tightly to Mr. Trump’s pant legs throughout the primary season, went so far as to pledge solidarity and withdraw his own name from the Colorado ballot, and he demanded the other candidates follow suit. A biotech financier who has spent millions of his own dollars on his campaign, Mr. Ramaswamy railed against “the unelected elite class in the back of palace halls” as he sat in the back of his well-appointed campaign bus.
Even Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor whose long-shot run for the Republican nomination has centered on questioning the front-runner’s fitness for office, demurred, engaging not on the Colorado justices’ conclusions but their timing.
“I don’t think a court should exclude somebody from running for president without there being a trial and evidence that’s accepted by a jury that they did participate in insurrection,” he said on Tuesday night during a town hall event in New Hampshire.
The heart of the Republican primary season is now just weeks away: Voters in Iowa will caucus on Jan. 15, with the first primary of the year, New Hampshire’s, coming Jan. 23. If anything, the former president’s lead seems only to grow. He clobbers his closest Republican competitors in the primary by more than 50 percentage points, in a new New York Times/Siena College poll, drawing 64 percent of Republican primary voters nationwide.
Yet his rivals remain apparently unwilling to take any real risks that could shake the dynamic. Republican primary voters have overwhelmingly decided that each new legal challenge to Mr. Trump’s actions to cling to power after losing the 2020 election, each ruling in cases involving the way he has conducted business, treated women or handled classified material — all of it is simply not relevant to their votes.
More than one in five Republican voters think Mr. Trump has committed crimes, and 13 percent of Republicans believe that he should be found guilty in court of trying to overturn the 2020 election, yet most of those voters also say they would still cast their ballots for him.
So, his rivals figure, why dwell on it?
“I guess that state has that right to remove Trump from the ballot if they feel like it,” Tim Robbins, 72, a farmer and Iowa Republican, said of the Colorado ruling after an appearance by Ms. Haley. “But I think the people need to decide. It’s the people’s decision, not the state’s decision.”
He added that he agreed with Ms. Haley’s hands-off approach: “I don’t need somebody to tell me what to think of somebody else,” he said. “I’ll draw my own conclusions.”
It seemed on Wednesday that only two people in the race for the White House wanted to talk about the Colorado ruling: Mr. Trump, who sent fund-raising appeals in emails with the subject lines “BALLOT REMOVAL” and “REMOVED FROM THE BALLOT,” and President Biden, who said Mr. Trump “certainly supported an insurrection.”
“You saw it all,” the president told reporters on Wednesday. “Now, whether the 14th Amendment applies, I’ll let the court make that decision.”
There is no evidence suggesting that Mr. Biden has any ties to the Colorado case, or that he has meddled in any of the four criminal cases pending against Mr. Trump. But on his social media network, Mr. Trump was spinning the story that has either paralyzed his rivals for the nomination or elicited hosannas from the competition.
“BIDEN SHOULD DROP ALL OF THESE FAKE POLITICAL INDICTMENTS AGAINST ME, BOTH CRIMINAL & CIVIL,” he wrote. “EVERY CASE I AM FIGHTING IS THE WORK OF THE DOJ & WHITE HOUSE.”
Michael Gold, Jazmine Ulloa and Nicholas Nehamas contributed reporting.