Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley.
CNN  — 

A weekend of ferocious political exchanges laid out the tumultuous reality of the 2024 White House campaign less than a year from Election Day.

The fight for the GOP nomination is about far more than a horse race between candidates. Its outcome will decide whether the country faces an extraordinary general election – which one potential nominee, ex-President Donald Trump, would fight while facing multiple criminal trials and promising a presidency of retribution that could shake US democracy as never before.

Time is quickly ebbing for one of his distant Republican rivals to recast the race less than two months before voting begins. The weekend brought more evidence that other prominent candidates have yet to solve the core question of the GOP primary season: How to exploit Trump’s greatest general election weakness – his lawlessness and criminal exposure – without alienating GOP voters.

Just days after Trump was accused of echoing Nazi propaganda and as he firms up plans to use the presidency as a tool of personal vengeance, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley laid out her most strident criticism of Trump yet. But her euphemistic language only highlighted her political dilemma and underscored Trump’s dominance of the primary.

Haley said in Iowa that she didn’t agree with Trump’s recent comments referring to political opponents as “vermin,” which had drawn Nazi analogies from the White House and some other critics of the ex-president. She also tried to allude to the potential uproar of a second Trump term without referring to the ex-president’s coming criminal trials or his attempt to subvert the will of voters by staying in power after he lost the 2020 election.

“It’s the chaos of it all, right? I think he means well. But the chaos has got to stop,” said Haley, Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations. “So it’s not so much about Donald Trump and, yes, his personality is not my personality. And yes, he says things he shouldn’t say. We look so distracted right now. And when America’s distracted, the world is less safe.”

Another Trump rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is battling to save his campaign after coming fourth in a new CNN/University of New Hampshire poll of the first GOP primary state, tried a different attack on Trump – though, like Haley, he shied away from the ex-president’s most glaring history.

“The presidency’s not a job for an 80-year-old. … Donald Trump would actually be older on January 20, 2025, than Biden was on January 20, 2021,” DeSantis told CNN’s Jake Tapper of the 77-year-old GOP front-runner on “State of the Union” Sunday.

“The presidency is not a job for somebody that’s pushing 80 years old. I just think that that’s something that has been shown with Joe Biden. Father Time is undefeated. Donald Trump is not exempt from any of that,” DeSantis added. “I’m in the prime of my life. I go in Day 1. I will serve two terms, deliver big results, and get the country moving again.”

Such a prospect seems a long shot, however. After beginning his campaign tipped as the most dangerous Republican challenger to Trump, the Florida governor is now pinning his hopes on a high finish in Iowa to re-create faded momentum countrywide.

DeSantis hit on one of the ironies of the 2024 campaign as he tried to paint both potential party nominees with the same brush. Voters consistently tell pollsters that they want a choice other than a 2020 rematch between Biden, who turns 81 on Monday, and Trump. Despite significant reluctance from within their own parties, both men are likely to be the nominees.

The Florida governor did, however, make the sale with one Iowa voter who told him on Sunday that he appreciated his point about being able to serve two terms and that he had seen his interview on “State of the Union.” The voter, John Walker, told CNN’s Kit Maher that he still liked the ex-president but added: “I just think there’s a huge amount of uncertainty with Trump, and I don’t like that.” Walker went on: “I don’t like to be uncertain. We don’t know if he’s going to end up in jail.”

Still, both Haley and DeSantis know that millions of the ex-president’s supporters have bought into his false claims he won in 2020. And even voters who say at GOP campaign events that they are open to a different candidate often also comment that Trump’s criminal indictments are evidence of political persecution by the Biden administration.

There’s very little market for trying to take Trump down.

Candidates like former Vice President Mike Pence or former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie – who have more openly criticized Trump over his alleged illegalities, including over his attempt to overturn the 2020 election and his handling of classified documents – are either already out of the race or struggling to make a mark nationally. Haley and DeSantis are therefore seeking to preserve their viability by dodging around Trump’s transgressions. But they are failing to hold him to account in a way that might weaken his hold on the nominating race – a scenario that severely restricts their campaigns.

Trump gives a glimpse of what a second presidency would look like

Trump this weekend underscored the extreme nature of his candidacy and how he has not moderated in nearly three years out of the White House. During a swing through Iowa, he slammed Haley and DeSantis with petty insults, blasted Biden as “stupid” and “incompetent” and warned he shouldn’t be running the country.

The ex-president’s untamed tongue is not just previewing what would likely be a turbulent second term; it is also getting him into trouble in his multiple court cases, resulting judges imposing gag orders.

On Monday, Trump’s legal team will argue to a Washington, DC, appeals court that one such order imposed in his federal election subversion criminal case is unconstitutional.

District Judge Tanya Chutkan issued the measure to stop Trump from targeting court officers, potential witnesses and special counsel Jack Smith and his staff, verbally and on social media. The ex-president claims the measure infringes his First Amendment rights and is an at