Donald Trump’s monthslong hiatus from the campaign trail is about to end.
Looking to maximize his status as the only 2024 Republican presidential contender to declare so far, the former president will make back-to-back appearances Saturday in New Hampshire and South Carolina, unveiling his leadership team in the Palmetto State from the steps of the Statehouse.
The pair of stops in two early-voting states provides an opening for Trump to reinvigorate his slow-moving campaign before any rivals take the plunge and join him in the primary field. Aides to the former president also believe his return to the trail will help alleviate electability concerns that have been raised publicly and privately – by allies, former advisers and some of his soon-to-be opponents – about his ability to defeat President Joe Biden in a rematch.
Trump will first test his strength as a candidate in a keynote address Saturday to hundreds of New Hampshire Republican leaders and grassroots activists at the state party’s annual meeting in Salem. He will then head to South Carolina, a state that helped pave his way to becoming the GOP nominee in 2016 and where he is expected to unveil a handful of endorsements as he looks to repeat his past performance. One of those endorsements will come from GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham. Republican Gov. Henry McMaster and newly elected GOP Rep. Russell Fry, who have already endorsed Trump’s 2024 campaign, also plan to attend as a show of support.
“The former president is still extremely popular in South Carolina, but there’s other mitigating factors as well, like other people in the race or how he would fare in a primary versus general. He’s 1-1 right now, and [the 2024 election] would be the tie-breaker, I suppose,” said former South Carolina House Majority Leader Jim Merrill, who served as state director of Trump’s 2016 campaign.
Trump’s current allies insist he is hitting the campaign trail with the wind in his sails, following Meta’s announcement Thursday that his Facebook and Instagram accounts will soon be reinstated and recent revelations that classified documents were found at the homes of both Biden and former Vice President Mike Pence. Sources close to the Trump campaign also cited Kevin McCarthy’s successful – if drawn out – bid for House speaker as a turning point for the former president, who has attempted to take credit for coaxing McCarthy holdouts into backing the California Republican after a dayslong standoff on the House floor.
Trump has also taken steps to build out his campaign infrastructure in recent weeks, with several staffers relocating to Florida and the opening of a new campaign office in Palm Beach just miles away from his Mar-a-Lago estate.
“Things certainly feel good. We feel good,” one source close to Trump said.
But the enthusiasm that carried Trump to a first-place 2016 primary finish in South Carolina with a double-digit margin of victory isn’t nearly as palpable this time around, according to several Palmetto State sources. That could be because two native South Carolinians – Sen. Tim Scott and former Gov. Nikki Haley – are also weighing presidential bids, possibly attracting voters who prefer a fresh face atop the ticket or are partial to candidates from their own backyard.
“I think a lot of folks are keeping their powder dry until Nikki or Tim make a decision, and I would be in that category,” said South Carolina state Sen. Wes Climer, who won’t be attending Trump’s event on Saturday. Climer said he has five small children and will be home with them instead.
“Nikki and Tim have a lot of friends all across the state and for very good reasons. Nikki was an absolutely fantastic governor. Tim is an absolutely outstanding senator. And I think a lot of folks in South Carolina are anxious to see what either or both of them decide with regard to a presidential decision,” Climer said.
Dallas Woodhouse, a Republican operative and the executive director of the South Carolina Policy Council, has spoken to GOP groups in counties across the state in recent weeks and told CNN that many voters are not set on supporting Trump in 2024, despite his prior success in the state. While Trump has twice won South Carolina, a deep-red state that hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential nominee since 1976, his defeat in the 2020 election and the underperformance of Trump-backed candidates in key 2022 battleground races have contributed to unease about his ability to win back the White House in two years.
South Carolina Republicans “still seem to have fond feelings of Trump,” Woodhouse said, but there “is a certain amount of people that have fallen out of favor with him and a large number that are interested in winning and they do not believe that he is the best path to win.”
Another state operative said many high-profile Republicans and state officials would not be in attendance at Trump’s event, but a source close to Trump rejected the idea that GOP officials in the state had turned on Trump, insisting there would be a solid showing on Saturday. One official who will be absent from Trump’s event is state Attorney General Alan Wilson, whom the 45th president endorsed for reelection last year.
“Due to his involvement in the ongoing Murdaugh trial and other official conflicts, Attorney General Wilson is unable to attend,” his spokesman Robert Kittle said in an email. Kittle did not respond to additional questions about Wilson’s endorsement plans in the 2024 primary.
Two Republican strategists in the state said they thought it was an odd decision for Trump to hold a campaign event on a Saturday, when state legislators, who are currently in session, typically want to spend time with their families.
It is unclear just how many members of Trump’s 2016 South Carolina leadership team have agreed to help his 2024 campaign. Reached by email, Ed McMullen, the former US ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein, said he was currently traveling for business in Europe and did not respond when asked if he would be part of Trump’s leadership team again this cycle. McMullen served as chairman of Trump’s first presidential campaign in South Carolina, later working on his transition team after his election as president and on his inauguration committee. Meanwhile, former South Carolina Lt. Gov. André Bauer confirmed to CNN that he is on Trump’s 2024 leadership team in the state and will be in attendance Saturday.
Bauer took an early shot at Haley, just days after the former governor sounded closer than ever to mounting her own 2024 campaign in an interview with Fox News. “Stay tuned,” Haley had told the network.
“She won’t even scratch,” said Bauer, who lost a gubernatorial primary to Haley in 2010.
One Haley supporter, former South Carolina GOP Chairman Katon Dawson, said the Trump campaign hasn’t had much of a presence in the state since he launched his White House bid in November. And as Trump prepares to roll out endorsements from Graham and others, Dawson said those “are nice to have but that’s not going to name the winner of the South Carolina primary.”
A person familiar with the situation said Trump aides and allies have spent much of the past week working the phones with members of the South Carolina General Assembly, trying to organize a large showing at the former president’s campaign event, which will take place at the Statehouse. Graham has also been making calls in the state on Trump’s behalf, trying to rally support for him, according to several people familiar with the matter. The South Carolina senator, who suggested he was done with Trump in the hours following the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol, has since become a regular golf partner of the former president.
The efforts have drawn mixed results, with several state lawmakers informing Trump’s campaign that they are unable to make it or want to remain neutral until the GOP primary field takes shape.
“I guess before people jump out for any candidate, they want to make sure they are sincere. Nikki certainly has her supporters. Tim is almost universally liked, and obviously South Carolinians have certainly heard about [Florida Gov. Ron] DeSantis and [Virginia Gov.] Glenn Youngkin,” said Merrill, the former Trump campaign state director.
“There is some wariness over the whole drama that follows President Trump sometimes,” Merrill added.
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