Former President Donald Trump is set to launch his 2024 White House bid on Saturday with visits to a pair of early voting states, his first campaign events since launching his bid more than two months ago.
Trump will be the keynote speaker at the New Hampshire GOP’s annual convention before traveling to Columbia, South Carolina, where he will unveil his leadership team at the Statehouse. The states hold two of the party’s first three nominating contests, giving them enormous power in choosing the nominee.
Trump and his allies hope the events will offer a show of force behind the former president after a slow start to his campaign that left many questioning his commitment to running again. In recent weeks, his supporters have reached out to political operatives and elected officials to secure support for Trump’s re-election at a critical time when other Republicans are preparing their own expected challenges.
“The gun has been fired and the campaign season has begun,” said Stephen Stepanek, chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party and co-chairman of Trump’s 2016 campaign in the state.
While Trump remains the only declared presidential candidate for 2024, a number of potential challengers are expected, including Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence and former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, who served as Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations. to launch campaigns in the coming months.
In South Carolina, Gov. Henry McMaster, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham and several members of the state’s congressional delegation plan to attend Saturday’s event. But Trump’s team has struggled to line up support from state lawmakers, even some who avidly backed him during previous races.
Some have said that more than a year from the primary vote is too early to make endorsements, or that they are waiting to see who else enters the race. Others have said it’s time for the party to move past Trump to a new generation of leadership.
Republican state Rep. RJ May, vice chairman of South Carolina’s state House Freedom Caucus, said he was not going to attend Trump’s event because he was focused on the Freedom Caucus’ legislative battle with the GOP caucus. He indicated he was open to other GOP candidates in the 2024 race.
“I think we’re going to have a very strong slate of candidates here in South Carolina,” said May, who voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020. He added, “I would 100% take a Donald Trump over Joe Biden.”
Dave Wilson, president of the conservative Christian nonprofit Palmetto Family, said some conservative voters may have concerns about Trump’s recent comments that Republicans who opposed abortion without exception had cost the party critical victories in the 2022 midterm elections.
“It gives pause to some in the conservative ranks of the Republican Party whether we need the process to resolve itself,” said Wilson, whose group hosted Pence for a speech in 2021. He added: “You continue to have to earn your vote. Nothing is taken for granted.”
Acknowledging that Trump “did some phenomenal things when he was president,” such as securing a conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court, Wilson said South Carolina’s GOP voters may be seeking “a candidate who can be a standard bearer not only for now, but for build ongoing momentum across America for conservatism for decades to come.”
But Gerri McDaniel, who worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign and will attend Saturday’s event, dismissed the idea that voters were ready to move on from the former president.
“Some of the media keep saying he is losing support. No, he’s not,” she said. “It’s just going to be bigger than it was before because there are so many people who are angry about what’s going on in Washington.”
The South Carolina event, in a government building surrounded by elected officials, is in some ways off-brand for a former reality TV star who usually favors mega rallies and has tried to cultivate an outsider image. But the reality is that Trump is a former president seeking to reclaim the White House by contrasting his time in office with the current administration.
Rallies are also expensive, and Trump, who is notoriously frugal, added new financial challenges when he decided to launch his campaign in November — far earlier than many allies had urged. That leaves him subject to strict fundraising regulations and prevents him from using his well-funded leadership PAC to pay for such events, which can cost millions of dollars.
Officials expect Trump to speak in the second-floor lobby of the Statehouse, a lavish ceremonial area between the House and Senate chambers.
The venue has hosted some of South Carolina’s most notable political news moments, including Haley’s 2015 signing of a bill to remove the Confederate battle flag from the Statehouse grounds and Gov. Henry McMaster’s 2021 signing of legislation banning abortions in the state after about six weeks of the pregnancy. The state Supreme Court recently ruled that the abortion law was unconstitutional, and McMaster has vowed to ask for a new hearing.
Trump’s nascent campaign has already sparked controversy, particularly when he dined with Holocaust-denying white nationalist Nick Fuentes and the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, who had made a series of anti-Semitic comments. Trump was also widely mocked for selling a series of digital trading cards depicting him as a superhero, a cowboy and an astronaut, among others.
At the same time, he is the subject of a number of criminal investigations, including an investigation into the discovery of hundreds of classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago club and whether he obstructed justice by refusing to return them, as well as state and federal investigations of his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election, which he lost to Democrat Joe Biden.
Still, Trump remains the only announced 2024 candidate, and early polling shows him a favorite to win the party’s nomination.
Stepanek, who is required to remain neutral as party chairman in New Hampshire, dismissed the significance of Trump’s slow start, which campaign officials say is currently spent putting infrastructure in place for a national campaign.
In New Hampshire, he said, “there’s been a lot of anticipation, a lot of excitement” for Trump’s re-election. He said Trump’s die-hard supporters continue to stand behind him.
“You have a lot of people who weren’t with him in ’15, ’16, then became trump players, and never became trumps,” Stepanek said. “But the people who supported him in New Hampshire, who carried him to victory in 2016 in the New Hampshire primary, they’re still there waiting for the president.”
Colvin reported from New York.