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After a slow start, Trump gets on the trail and the GOP 2024 campaign season begins


Former President Donald Trump plans to campaign in New Hampshire and South Carolina on Saturday.

Trump will be the keynote speaker at an annual meeting of the GOP in New Hampshire on Saturday afternoon, then head to Columbia, SC, for an event billed as announcing his “leadership team” in the state. His appearances in two early primary states — which will play a big role in the GOP race — effectively usher in the 2024 GOP campaign season, as many other Republicans take steps to challenge Trump, though no one has officially taken the plunge.

Saturday’s trip will serve as an early barometer of Trump’s support and message. The former president will stump in two states where he triumphed in the 2016 primary, the last time there was an open race for the GOP nomination. But he has so far struggled to rekindle the energy of previous runs and has thus far forgo the usual post-campaign storm storm. Some Republicans have been openly critical, and many old allies await approvals as a potential pressure field takes shape, even as polls show Trump at or near the top.

“What campaign?” said Terry Sullivan, the campaign manager for Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential run, when asked how he thought Trump’s first few months had gone. He pointed to Trump’s widely criticized dinner with rapper Ye and Nick Fuentes, both known for their anti-Semitic views, as his most notable activity since the announcement.

Steven Cheung, a spokesman for Trump’s campaign, said in a statement that the former president plans to “unveil his leadership teams this weekend, which will demonstrate the significant support he has from grassroots leaders to elected officials.” He added: “There is no one else who can generate as much enthusiasm and excitement as President Trump.”

Still, many Republicans are looking beyond the ex-president as polls show Ron DeSantis would be a formidable Trump challenger, with one finding the Florida governor running Trump in Granite state, while other candidates fall far behind. The party’s disappointing losses in three straight elections are also weighing on the minds of Republicans who blame Trump for elevating flawed and untested candidates who embraced his grievances and false claims during the interims.

In 2016, Trump ran like an outsider aiming at the GOP establishment, causing a shock; in 2020, he marched to the nomination as an incumbent. Now he is in a more precarious position and faces several investigations.

Saturday’s events will provide further insight into Trump’s pitch to and reception by voters as he competes with DeSantis and other potential rivals for the spotlight. Since launching his campaign in November with a speech at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida, Trump has done little about traditional campaign activities, leading some Republicans to question his commitment to the 2024 race. Instead of holding the big rallies he’s known for, Trump has been spreading messages of support and policy ideas on Truth Social, his social media platform.

The lineup of his campaign stops could further underline the contrast with previous campaigns as Trump joins Senator Lindsey O. Graham (RS.C.), South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster (R) and others joins a smaller gathering for which allies fought. gain wider support.

But among critics and allies, few are willing to count Trump, who has a long history of defying expectations. His campaign won a victory last week when Meta said it would restore Trump’s account on Facebook and Instagram, important fundraising tools for the former president in the past. The company suspended him for two years after a pro-Trump mob stormed the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, animated by Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him. Trump’s praise and encouragement of the rioters led to his swift banishment.

Polls have underscored Trump’s vulnerability this time around, with recent polls giving DeSantis an edge in head-to-head matches. A Marquette Law School poll released this week found that nationally, 64 percent of Republican and right-wing voters favored DeSantis and 36 percent supported Trump in choosing between the two of them.

Bill Bowen, a GOP deputy from New Hampshire who will attend Saturday’s meeting, said many Republicans he talks to have a clear takeaway from the midterm elections, where Trump has defeated candidates who fell short in the general election in critical races, including swing-state New Hampshire’s Senate contest.

People think “we really need a candidate who can appeal more to the center,” Bowen said in an interview Friday, adding that “the question is, how do you do that without alienating Trump-like voters?” For Bowen, the answer is DeSantis.

Ahead of his events in New Hampshire and South Carolina, Trump released a video explaining how he would fight the “radical left” in education, tapping into an issue where DeSantis in particular has thrilled the conservative base by restrict what schools are allowed to teach. Trump pledged to “cut federal funding for any school or program that pushes critical race theory” — an academic framework for understanding racism that has sparked conservative anger across the country — as well as “gender ideology or other inappropriate racial, sexual, or political content on our children.”

Trump also recently weighed in on the Republicans’ debate over entitlement programs, warning the party not to cut Medicare and Social Security as some GOP lawmakers push for major changes as a condition of raising the debt limit later this year. Democrats have extensively attacked Republicans for bringing up the possibility of spending cuts, even though many Republican leaders distance themselves from the idea.

Democrats reiterated their criticism of Trump as extreme prior to Saturday’s events. Democratic National Committee spokesman Ammar Moussa took aim at the former president in a statement about Trump’s role in overthrowing Roo to Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling establishing a constitutional right to abortion, which also criticized him for “fringe policies and divisive rhetoric.”

Trump will address the New Hampshire GOP rally at noon in Salem. New Hampshire Republican Governor Chris Sununu — who is highly critical of Trump and has not ruled out a presidential run of his own — does not plan to attend, his office told local news station NBC 5.

Later in the day, two other potential 2024 candidates in South Carolina will also be conspicuously absent from Trump’s event: Senator Tim Scott (RS.C.) and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, who served as U.S. ambassador under Trump. Nations and once said she wouldn’t run if the former president did. Those close to Scott and Haley say both are seriously considering running for president, an obstacle to Trump’s efforts to shut down support in South Carolina.

The fact that Haley and two other members of the Trump cabinet — former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former Vice President Mike Pence — are all brooding is a signal that “we’re not just in step with our former president,” Bob said. Vanderplaats, an influential evangelical leader in Iowa who has urged the GOP to leave Trump behind.

“The field is exceptionally wide open,” said Vander Plaat.

Graham, who is expected to support Trump on Saturday, has argued that people should get behind Trump because he is likely to win the nomination, according to people familiar with the calls who spoke on condition of anonymity to share private conversations. Some state lawmakers told Trump’s team they could not attend, people familiar with the talks said.

Michael Scherer and Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.

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