Donald Trump’s announcement that he’s running for US president in 2024 wasn’t a lark, or a ploy to avoid prosecution, as some have speculated. He’s hitting the road and laying the kind of groundwork necessary for a serious bid to recapture the White House.
Nearly three months after announcing his campaign, the former president made his first campaign foray out of his adopted home state of Florida on Saturday.
In New Hampshire, he addressed a meeting of the Republican Party and announced the outgoing state party chair would be a senior adviser to his campaign. And at the state capitol in Columbia, South Carolina, he received the endorsements of the state’s governor, Henry McMaster, and Senator Lindsey Graham.
The latter, a Trump confidante who expressed some disillusionment after the Capitol riot on 6 January 2021, is now back firmly in the fold.
“How many times have you heard, ‘We like Trump policies, but we want somebody new?’ Mr. Graham asked the crowd. “There are no Trump policies without Donald Trump. I was there.”
Mr Trump once again denied his 2020 defeat and told supporters that he – unlike any possible Republican alternative – would be the most effective nominee in 2024.
“To change the whole system, you need a president who can take on the whole system and a president who can win,” he said from the state capitol’s main hall.
In both stops, Mr Trump touted what he said was his record of success during his presidency and attacked President Joe Biden’s record on crime, immigration and the economy.
Across the street, Todd Gerhardt, a Republican district executive committee member from nearby Charleston, sold honey in Trump-shaped plastic bottles.
Mr Gerhardt was an early supporter of Mr Trump’s first presidential campaign, organized a 2016 rally for him on South Carolina’s posh Kiawah Island, and recently visited the former president’s Mar-a-Lago estate for a fundraiser and to provide his honey for the campaign’s gift bags.
He said Mar-a-Lago had a festive atmosphere as the Trump team geared up for the coming fight and he dismissed concerns that Republican voters, in South Carolina and across the US, might be looking for a different nominee this time around.
“When people talk about other candidates running and they say I’m going to do this, or I’m going to do that, Trump has actually done it,” Gerhardt says. “He has all the oxygen in the room.”
Earlier in the day, at a street market a few blocks away from the capitol, however, Mr Trump’s visit to Columbia seemed difficult to register. A patron at a local coffee shop was excited about it being inappropriate for the former president to hold a campaign event on state property, but most did not even know he was in town.
“There doesn’t seem to be the same enthusiasm for Trump this time around,” said another local.
It’s no coincidence that the first two stops of Mr Trump’s third presidential campaign were South Carolina and New Hampshire. The two states could prove to be central to Mr Trump’s strategy to crack the White House.
While Iowa is the first state to hold a Republican presidential nomination contest in 2024, Mr Trump finished third there in 2016 and the evangelical Christians who dominate the state’s Republican electorate could be eyeing other possible candidates, like former Vice-President Mike Pence and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
New Hampshire and South Carolina, however, provided Mr Trump with a one-two punch that catapulted him to the front in 2016 – a lead he never relinquished.
They could do the same in 2024. In fact, every Republican presidential nominee since 1980 has won the South Carolina primary, making it unique among the traditional early-voting states.
South Carolina could prove to be a unique challenge for Mr Trump this time around, however. He faces potential challenges from Senator Tim Scott as well as the state’s former governor, Nikki Haley.
If this is a pivotal moment for Mr Trump, it comes at a time when public opinion polls are starting to stabilize for him after his support dropped in the aftermath of Republicans’ disappointing results in November’s midterm congressional elections.
An Emerson Poll conducted earlier this week found 55% of Republican voters supporting Mr Trump, well ahead of the 29% for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who has not announced a presidential bid but is viewed to be the former president’s most formidable rival. A Monmouth poll in December had Mr DeSantis ahead by double-digits.
Earlier this week, Meta announced that it was lifting the suspension it had placed on Mr Trump’s accounts in the aftermath of the attack on the US Capitol by his supporters. Although the former president has yet to resume posting to his accounts, his return could provide yet another opportunity for voter outreach – and fundraising – as his still minimally staffed campaign gears up for its 2024 run.
If rallies and Facebook donations were the fuel for Mr Trump’s past White House bids, his South Carolina stop was a different kind of operation.
With only 300 announced attendees, it was a decidedly low-key event compared to his typical arena gatherings, with their carnival atmosphere. Attire tended toward sport coats and dresses, not Make America Great Again hats and Let’s Go Brandon t-shirts.
To win a third Republican presidential nomination, however, Mr Trump will need the support of the political rank-and-file in states like New Hampshire and South Carolina, as well as his rally-going loyalists. And while Mr Trump’s national polls show continued strength, a recent South Carolina survey had nearly half of Republican voters expressing a preference for “someone else” besides Mr Trump.
“Someone else” will not appear on primary ballots, however. And with just over a year until voting begins, while he is still the only announced candidate, Donald Trump is testing out new ways to make that pitch.
“They said he’s not doing rallies and he’s not campaigning, maybe he’s lost his step,” Mr Trump said in New Hampshire. “I’m more angry now and I’m more committed now than I ever was.”