By Tim Reid
WEARE, New Hampshire (Reuters) - When Donald Trump trounced his Republican rivals in New Hampshire's 2016 primary, the stunning win announced to other states the reality TV showman was a serious contender. Trump went on to capture the Republican nomination and then the White House.
But as the former president kicks off his bid to recapture the White House in 2024 with a speech in New Hampshire on Saturday - his first event in an early primary state - he will find the political landscape more treacherous than he did six years ago, according to party activists, members and strategists in the state.
In interviews with 10 New Hampshire Republican Party officials and members, some of whom worked on Trump's 2016 primary campaign and all of whom have been staunch Trump supporters in the past, Reuters found only three who were sticking with him this time around - including the state chair, an influential Republican figure who is so enthusiastic about Trump he is stepping down on Saturday to help his campaign.
The rest cited exhaustion with Trump's controversies, exasperation at the constant drama, and a desire to move on from Trump's loss in 2020 with a fresh face who they thought would have a stronger chance of winning in 2024.
Trump's campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
The public souring on the former president is a troubling development for Trump. A defeat could complicate his chances of winning the party nomination for president, analysts say, because New Hampshire often gives a candidate momentum as they head to other primary states.
A lack of enthusiasm for the former president and his prospects for winning in 2024 could hurt Trump because party activists do vital groundwork for candidates, such as knocking on doors and making phone calls to raise money and boost turnout.
Most of the New Hampshire party members who had cooled on Trump said they would prefer Florida Governor Ron DeSantis as the party's standard bearer, although DeSantis has not yet said if he will launch a White House bid.
"Donald Trump right now is a distraction for the Republican Party in trying to go forward. Donald Trump has run his course," said Brian Sullivan, 60, a Hillsborough County Republican Committee member who backed Trump in the 2016 primary.
"I would rather see someone else, like Ron DeSantis, in the race," Sullivan said.
While he likes Trump's policies and applauds his achievements in office, "he's got so much baggage. I just don't think he has what it takes to win the White House again," Sullivan said.
The three Republicans still backing Trump said his voting base in New Hampshire remains enthusiastic, he has formidable name recognition, and that many Republican voters like his policy achievements while in office, giving him a strong record to run on, unlike other potential candidates.
The Trump campaign, in an email to supporters, touted a Jan. 24 poll from Emerson College Polling showing the former president leading DeSantis nationally among Republican voters, 55% to 29%.
Yet the willingness of Republican party members to criticize Trump in conversations with Reuters is striking. Some Republican party officials and members who have broken with Trump in the past have been subjected to blowback and online trolling from his supporters.
Lori Davis, 67, got into grassroots Republican politics because of Trump. Back in 2015 when he announced his candidacy, she was inspired. She worked on his New Hampshire primary campaign, knocked on doors for him, urged anybody she met to vote for him.
Not this time.
"I like Donald Trump. But he has gone too far polarizing. It's going to be an uphill battle for him in this primary because of his divisiveness. People are tired of the drama," Davis said at her home over a meal of burgers.
"I'm seeing that people want DeSantis. He has a lot of the Trump philosophy, but is not as bombastic, he's not attacking people 24/7. People are tired of that. It gives them headaches," Davis said.
`PEOPLE WANT A WINNER`
It is not just in New Hampshire where Trump faces potential headwinds. Some billionaire donors who helped fund his previous campaigns have not yet donated. They include hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer and his daughter, Rebekah Mercer. She has already donated to DeSantis's political committee.
New Hampshire has an outsize role in choosing presidential candidates because it is the second nominating contest after Iowa's caucuses.
While the winner of New Hampshire's Republican primary has not won the state in a general election since George W. Bush in 2000, it is still viewed as a critical test in the nominating process.
Chris Maidment, chairman of the Hillsborough County Republican Committee, described the mood among many members as "Trump fatigue," adding: "I'm definitely open minded this time round. There's a lot of exciting potential candidates out there."
A majority of candidates Trump endorsed in competitive races in November's congressional elections lost to Democrats. During Trump's four years as president after his 2016 victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton, Republicans lost control of both chambers of Congress, before he lost the 2020 election to his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden.
"People want a winner and the elections are about the future. Republicans want someone who can win and who is not going to be a pushover for the Left. Trump represented that before but I'm not sure he represents that now," said Neil Levesque, executive director at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College.
In a poll conducted of likely Republican primary voters in New Hampshire by Levesque just before last November's election, Trump trailed DeSantis by 38% to 47%. Overall, 50% of the state's voters had a "strongly unfavorable" impression of Trump, with just 22% a "strongly favorable" one.
Another complicating factor for Trump this time round is that independents can vote in New Hampshire's Republican and Democratic primaries. If Biden runs again, the Democratic primary will likely be uncontested, and many independents may choose to vote in the Republican primary where their vote will have a bigger impact.
"Independents go where the action is. A lot of independents will vote against Trump. And that's not good news for him", Tom Rath, a Republican strategist in New Hampshire, said.
Polls in New Hampshire and elsewhere show Trump is unpopular with a majority of independents.
Despite signs of weariness with Trump, he will still be a formidable candidate in the New Hampshire primary, some party strategists said.
"He still starts 2023 as the frontrunner. He's got name ID, a strong base of supporters. His influence is still fairly significant," said Jim Merrill, a veteran New Hampshire Republican strategist.
Trump is the only Republican to declare his candidacy so far, although it is likely the field of rivals will grow this year. Others expected to jump into the race include DeSantis, Trump's former vice president, Mike Pence, and Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor.
STICKING WITH THE REAL DEAL
For Steve Stepanek, a former state representative who was the first elected official in New Hampshire to endorse Trump in 2015 and is chairman of New Hampshire's Republican Party, those potential contenders would be pale imitations of the real thing.
He remains a staunch supporter of the former president and is about to step down as the party chair because he wants to be involved with Trump's latest campaign, he told Reuters.
A replacement will be elected at a party meeting on Saturday, where Trump will be the keynote speaker. It is not yet clear if Stepanek's departure will loosen Trump's grip on the party machinery.
Stepanek accused the Republican Party naysayers of being Republican insiders, not the ordinary voters who decide primary elections.
"Are you going to believe a candidate who says I'll continue the Trump policies - or the man who is the Trump policies?"
(Reporting by Tim Reid in Weare, New Hampshire; Editing by Ross Colvin and Suzanne Goldenberg)