ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Former House Speaker and staunch Republican Paul Ryan sees only one Democrat capable of beating President Donald Trump in the 2020 election — but that candidate won't actually make it to the nomination, he contended at a panel event Tuesday.
"I'd say he's probably the most likely one to have a chance at beating Donald Trump, but I don't see Joe getting the nomination, I just don't see him getting there. I think it's going be one of these progressives, which I think will be much easier to beat," he told CNBC's Hadley Gamble at the annual Milken Conference in Abu Dhabi.
Speaking as a former congressman from Wisconsin, the one-time vice presidential hopeful outlined three key states the parties will have to fight over to win in 2020: Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. In those states, particularly Ryan's home state, "I think Joe is probably the hardest to beat, because it's going to come down to the suburban (voter), it's going to be the suburbanite that'll basically be the difference-maker," he said.
Ryan, who is on the board of Fox News parent Fox Corp., described that voter as typically a right-of-center, first-generation college-educated white-collar worker. "A first-generation Republican and they like Trump the idea, they like Trump the disruption — they don't necessarily like the personality and the noise and the tweets that come with it," he said.
"So they'll be tempted to vote for what they think is a safe moderate — and I think Joe Biden, it's all relative, will fall into that category, and is the likeliest to be able to win that voter," Ryan said. But that's only if Biden, former vice president and senator from Delaware, wins his party's nomination.
With several contenders still in the field, and further-left progressive candidates like Sen. Bernie Sanders seeing a surge in support from young liberal voters, Ryan believes Biden's chances are basically zero.
"If Bernie (I-VT) keeps racking up wins and is seen to be going toward the nomination, then you can probably make the case that (former New York Mayor Michael) Bloomberg will get enough proportional delegates, because he'll play in enough states, to go into the convention with a claim, and then you'll have one whale of a mess of a convention — in Milwaukee, and then we'll what happens there," Ryan said. "I don't see Joe getting the nomination, but he's the best bet the Democrats have."
Biden, initially expected by many Americans to blaze ahead as the Democratic nominee, trailed rivals Sanders, Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Elizabeth Warren in the Iowa caucuses last week. Polls in New Hampshire, which will hold its primary Tuesday, show Biden on the verge of another relatively weak finish, according to a RealClearPolitics polling average.
And new national polls show Sanders pulling ahead of Biden for the first time.
Bloomberg, meanwhile, joined the race late in the game and won't be appearing on any ballots until Super Tuesday on March 3, but he's rising in the polls after pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into his campaign. In a recent poll of small-business owners, the billionaire businessman was the only Democrat to top Trump. The poll, conducted in January, showed 52% of respondents said they favored the former New York mayor, according to Gallup and payments tech firm Square.
Ryan lauded what he felt were Trump's economic achievements, noting the sweeping tax reform and cuts package delivered under his leadership in 2017, the first since 1969. "If Trump were to lose it would be because of a really bad economy due to a crisis," he said.
But citing the lowest U.S. unemployment levels in some 50 years coupled with rapid wage growth, he contended, "It's really hard to run a contest against a president sitting on such a strong economy."
Trump's approval rating has ticked up from 47% to 49%, according to a recent poll by Hill/HarrisX conducted after he was acquitted on two impeachment charges. The president also reached a 49% approval rating in a Gallup poll last week, the highest recorded by Gallup since he assumed the presidency.
At the panel's start, audience members were asked to give a show of hands for who believed Trump would win reelection in 2020. The audience numbered several hundred, primarily in the business and finance community, and came from all over the world, but particularly the U.S., Europe and the Middle East.
Nearly every hand in the room went up.