UPDATE 2-Senior Republicans, 2024 hopefuls, rally behind Trump after criminal indictment
(Adds comments from Mike Pence, Tim Scott)
By Tim Reid
March 30 (Reuters) - Senior Republicans in Congress and the party's 2024 White House hopefuls rallied behind former President Donald Trump after he was indicted by a Manhattan grand jury investigating hush money payments to a porn star, calling the charges a weaponization of the justice system by Democrats.
Republicans' ferocious response to the indictment on Thursday reflected the grip Trump still holds on the party and many of its voters as he seeks a return to the White House in the 2024 presidential election.
Three potential rivals to Trump for the Republican nomination condemned the indictment, demonstrating the fine line they must tread when it comes to Trump, who has a core of diehard supporters among the party's primary voters.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, and U.S. Senator Tim Scott, who have yet to officially declare their White House bids but are making moves to do so, all decried the indictment.
DeSantis, Trump's closest rival for the nomination, is making a lack of personal controversy a plank of his nascent campaign.
Yet DeSantis said on Twitter the indictment was "un-American" and "the weaponization of the legal system to advance a political agenda."
Pence called it an "outrage", while Scott condemned it as a "travesty".
In the U.S. Congress, Kevin McCarthy, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, said the indictment "weaponized our sacred system of justice" against Trump.
Elise Stefanik, another member of the Republican House leadership, called the indictment a "political witch hunt and a dark day for America".
Rick Scott, a U.S. senator from Florida, called the indictment a "political vendetta against President Trump", while fellow Republican Senator Ted Cruz from Texas called it "a catastrophic escalation in the weaponization of the justice system."
Trump called the indictment a "political persecution."
He primed Republicans to react by declaring last week that he was going to be indicted over alleged payments to the adult film star Stormy Daniels. In the past week, according to Trump's campaign, he raised nearly $2 million.
Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, has said she received the money in exchange for keeping silent about a sexual encounter she had with Trump in 2006. Trump has denied the allegations.
Trump is the front-runner in the 2024 Republican field, with the support of 44% of Republicans in a Reuters/Ipsos poll completed on Monday, ahead of DeSantis' 30% support.
But the indictment also poses perils for Trump as he seeks re-election. Opinion polls suggest many Republican voters are seeking an alternative to Trump.
Democrats in the House also weighed in.
Nancy Pelosi, the former Democratic House Speaker, said: "No one is above the law, and everyone has the right to a trial to prove innocence. Hopefully, the former President will peacefully respect the system, which grants him that right.”
Ted Lieu, another House Democrat, called the indictment a "horrible precedent" but necessary if Trump committed crimes.
Jamaal Bowman, a fellow House Democrat, said: "It's time we ensure Trump is banned from running for any public office again." (Reporting by Tim Reid; editing by Ross Colvin, Cynthia Osterman and Lincoln Feast.)