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Kari Lake, a Trump Acolyte, Struggles to Find Her Path

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Kari Lake, a Trump Acolyte, Struggles to Find Her Path

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Kari Lake opened her Senate run in Arizona showing every intention of shedding the trappings of the Trumpism that made her a star in conservative circles but cost her the governor’s race two years ago: unfounded claims of election fraud, ruthless attacks on fellow Republicans and obsequious tributes to former President Donald J. Trump.

Ms. Lake, a former television anchor, has reached out to her critics. She has sought to appeal to the Republican establishment in ways that Mr. Trump has not, framing his Make America Great Again movement as a natural evolution of Reaganism, which attracted legions of voters to the party more 40 years ago. And she has moderated her message on abortion, opposing a federal ban on the procedure she once called “the ultimate sin.”

But after six months as a Senate candidate, she is struggling to walk away from the controversial positions that have turned off independents and alienated potential allies, lashing out in ways that Republicans now backing her campaign have warned will result in another defeat.

At a campaign event last week in Cave Creek, Ariz., she announced plans to continue her legal challenges to her 2022 election loss, castigated Republicans as cowards who did not support her fight and claimed, without proof, that Democrats were orchestrating illicit voting schemes involving undocumented immigrants.

“That’s the only way they can win — with illegals voting,” Ms. Lake said.

Ms. Lake built a national political persona in remarkably short order with applause lines that electrified every corner of MAGA Nation. Now, in her second high-profile battleground campaign in as many years, her attempt to temper her approach enough to win a Senate seat is proving to be a difficult task, even for someone with communication skills polished after decades in the local TV news business.

Many moderate Republicans in Arizona remain opposed to her bid, criticizing Ms. Lake’s overtures as inadequate and insincere. Some conservatives who supported her in 2022 have voiced concerns about her authenticity and questioned her ability to win in November.

“Kari Lake is making a lot of rookie mistakes, and you just don’t know what you’re going to get with her or where she’s going to land,” said Dan Farley, the president of the Arizona Tea Party and a former supporter who is now backing her primary opponent, Sheriff Mark Lamb of Pinal County. “She’s a powerful force but kind of like a bazooka lacking aim. She’s blowing up her own garage instead of enemies in the driveway.”

Public polls show Ms. Lake as a clear favorite against Mr. Lamb. She is also within striking distance of Representative Ruben Gallego, the front-runner for the Democratic Senate nomination. The race for the seat, which is being vacated by Senator Kyrsten Sinema, an independent, is one of only a handful this year expected to determine control of the closely divided chamber.

Republicans in Washington, eager to win back a seat the party held for 14 years before Ms. Sinema won it in 2018 as a Democrat, have rallied around Ms. Lake, who has been endorsed by party leaders in the Senate. Mr. Trump has also backed her campaign.

But Ms. Lake still faces a tough sell within her own party.

In a poll last month from Noble Predictive Insights, 27 percent of Republicans said they had a negative view of Ms. Lake, more than double the share of Democrats who said the same about Mr. Gallego. Among all Arizona voters, 49 percent had a negative opinion about Ms. Lake compared with 40 percent who viewed her positively.

Ms. Lake’s team highlighted her public appeal and her successful fund-raising efforts. She raised about $2.3 million in her first three months as a candidate, one of the strongest showings for any Republican. Much of that total came from small donations, signaling strong grass-roots support.

“We have an amazing opportunity to bring our country together under conservative ideals,” Ms. Lake said in an interview. “I’m meeting with people everyday who have not been Trumpers. I sit down with them, and I’m not changing who I am. I’m saying, ‘Look, we agree on this, this and this.’”

The open question is whether Ms. Lake can forgo the conservative crowd-pleasers long enough to communicate that message convincingly.

Jeff Fleetham, an Arizona Republican who was a Trump delegate at the past two Republican National Conventions, backed Ms. Lake two years ago but said he did not think she could move on from old fights. If she wins his party’s nomination, he said, he will not vote in the race, which would be the first time he has skipped voting in a contest with a Republican candidate.

“She seems to just want the limelight,” said Mr. Fleetham, who is backing Mr. Lamb in the primary. “She can’t be trusted in anything she says or does.”

Mr. Lamb, who gained national attention by refusing to enforce stay-at-home orders during the coronavirus pandemic, said in an interview that he was campaigning on his experience as a sheriff of a county on the U.S.-Mexico border, adding that Ms. Lake’s endorsement from Washington Republicans would backfire.

“To have the people who screwed up this country backing you is not playing well in Arizona,” Mr. Lamb said.

Ms. Lake has reached out to one of Mr. Lamb’s supporters, former Representative Matt Salmon, who ran against Ms. Lake in 2022. Mr. Salmon said he ignored a text message from Ms. Lake last month, which came days after she mocked him during a radio interview for refusing to meet with her.

“There’s nothing authentic about her,” Mr. Salmon said. “She touts her endorsements, but two years ago she would have criticized anyone with those same endorsements and declared them swamp creatures.”

At her rally in Cave Creek last week, some of Ms. Lake’s supporters said she should drop her false claims that she had been cheated out of the governorship in 2022.

“It alienates a lot of people,” said Julee Miller, 47, of North Phoenix. “It’d be nice if she tries to tone down a little bit, compromise here or there.”

But others said the issue demonstrated her fighting spirit.

“Amp it up — we like that,” said Gary Savage, 67, of Cave Creek. “The opposite of an election denier is somebody in the dark.”

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