Donald Trump is hitting the campaign trail this weekend for a whistle-stop tour of New Hampshire and South Carolina, two key early voting states, as the former US president presses ahead with his as-yet-uncontested bid for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 2024.
But despite his eagerness to secure a head start in the race while his rivals dither, there are signs that Trump, who has faced growing calls to step aside after many of his hand-picked candidates fell short in last November’s midterm elections, may face a lacklustre reception.
While the former president built his political brand on raucous rallies attended by thousands of his supporters, on Saturday morning he will speak at a relatively small venue: an annual meeting of state party officials at a high school in Salem, New Hampshire. Later in the day he will appear in what has been described as an “intimate” event inside South Carolina’s state capitol building.
“How it is being done makes you scratch your head,” said Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s former chief of staff who was a state legislator in South Carolina before being elected to Congress.
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Trump will receive welcome support on Saturday afternoon from South Carolina governor Henry McMaster and US Senator Lindsey Graham, who are among the state’s highest-profile Republicans. But notably absent from the stage will be two other household names in the state who are widely reported to be considering their own bids for the White House: former governor Nikki Haley and US Senator Tim Scott.
Meanwhile in New Hampshire, prominent Trump critic Chris Sununu, the state’s Republican governor who handily won re-election by more than 15 points last November and has flirted publicly with running for president, is not expected to appear at the earlier event in Salem.
The absences underscore how many national Republicans are wrestling with whether – and how – to take on Trump in 2024, given his enduring popularity with a plurality of the party’s grassroots. While recent opinion polls suggest alternative potential candidates such as Florida governor Ron DeSantis are gaining traction, Trump remains the most popular option among likely Republican voters in most surveys.
“[Trump] is the only one running right now, so he has some clean air to run in, but there will be some more people soon,” said Katon Dawson, a former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party who is voicing his support for a possible Haley candidacy.
Haley, who was Trump’s ambassador to the UN, previously said she would not challenge the former president, but told Fox News last week that she was “leaning in” to a 2024 bid.
Many South Carolina Republicans are bullish on a Haley campaign. Mulvaney described her as a “very capable politician”, while Dawson insisted she could stand up to inevitable attacks from Trump, saying: “She can catch those fast balls and throw them right back.”
Rob Godfrey, a long-time former adviser to Haley, said: “Now more than ever, people are going to be looking for a candidate whose message resonates more than his or her distractions. And that is going to be critically important when you are talking about taking on an incumbent party in a presidential election.”
But others are more sceptical. Gibbs Knotts, a political-science professor at the College of Charleston and the author of First in the South: Why South Carolina’s Presidential Primary Matters, noted Trump won the 2016 Republican primary in South Carolina, which helped shore up his successful bid for the party’s nomination in what was then a crowded field.
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“Trump did so well in the state, and the governor now is extremely popular, and he is a Trump supporter,” Knotts said. “Right now, Nikki Haley would have a difficult time winning in South Carolina against Donald Trump.”
Trump allies and critics alike acknowledge that the former president’s strength in the primaries across the country will depend in large part on how many fellow Republicans choose to run against him.
“Donald Trump does have weaknesses and can be beaten in a one-on-one or two-on-one race,” Mulvaney said. “But I think as soon as you get to five or six people in the race, he becomes the prohibitive favourite just because that 35 per cent of the base is always going to vote for him.”
Dawson agreed – and cautioned that Republicans would be unlikely to coalesce around one or two alternatives in any organised fashion.
“That never happens. In Republican primaries, they just don’t pal around and say, hey man, I’ll get out and you do this for me,” Dawson said. “Democrats do a pretty good job, I’m envious of it ... We don’t. We just circle the wagons and shoot each other for about six months.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023