COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Former President Donald Trump is set to kick off his 2024 White House bid on Saturday with visits to a pair of early-voting states, his first campaign events since announcing his latest run more than two months ago.
Trump will be the keynote speaker at the New Hampshire GOP's annual meeting before traveling to Columbia, South Carolina, where he is set to introduce his state leadership team. New Hampshire and South Carolina hold two of the party's first three nominating contests, giving them enormous power in selecting the nominee.
Trump and his allies hope the events will offer a show of force behind the former president after a sluggish start to his campaign that left many questioning his commitment to running again. In recent weeks, his backers have reached out to political operatives and elected officials to secure support for Trump at a critical point when other Republicans are preparing their own expected challenges.
"The gun is fired, and the campaign season has started," said Stephen Stepanek, outgoing chair of the New Hampshire Republican Party who served as co-chair of Trump's 2016 campaign in the state.
While Trump remains the only declared 2024 presidential candidate, potential challengers, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who was Trump's ambassador to the United Nations, are expected to get their campaign underway 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 at the Statehouse. But Trump's team has struggled to line up support from state lawmakers, even some who eagerly backed him during previous runs.
Some have said that more than a year out from primary balloting is too early to make endorsements or that they' are waiting to see who else enters the race. Others have said it is time for the party to move past Trump to a new generation of leadership.
Republican state Rep. RJ May, vice chair of South Carolina's state House Freedom Caucus, said he wasn't going to attend Trump's event because he was focused on that group's legislative fight with the GOP caucus. He indicated that he was open to other 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 conservative Christian nonprofit Palmetto Family, said some conservative voters may have concerns about Trump's recent comments that Republicans who opposed abortion without exceptions had cost the party in the November elections.
"It gives pause to some folks within the conservative ranks of the Republican Party as to whether or not we need the process to work itself out," 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," like securing a conservative U.S. Supreme Court majority, Wilson said South Carolina's GOP voters may be seeking "a candidate who can be the standard-bearer not only for now but to build ongoing momentum across America for conservatism for the next few decades."
But Gerri McDaniel, who worked on Trump's 2016 campaign and will be attending Saturday's event, rejected the idea that voters were ready to move on from the former president.
"Some of the media keep saying he's losing his support. No, he's not," she said. "It's only going to be greater than it was before because there are so many people who are angry about what's happening in Washington."
The South Carolina event, at a government building, surrounded by elected officials, is in some ways off-brand for a former reality television star who typically favors big rallies and has tried to cultivate an outsider image. But the reality is that Trump is a former president who is 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 deciding to begin his campaign in November - far earlier than many allies had urged. That leaves him subject to strict fundraising regulations and bars him from using his well-funded leadership PAC to pay for such events, which can cost several million dollars.
Officials expect Trump to speak in the second-floor lobby of the Statehouse, an opulent ceremonial area between the House and Senate chambers.
The venue has played host to 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 McMaster's 2021 signing of legislation banning abortions in the state after around six weeks of pregnancy. The state Supreme Court recently ruled the abortion law unconstitutional, and McMaster has pledged to seek a rehearing.
Trump's nascent campaign has already sparked controversy, most particularly when he had dinner with Holocaust-denying white nationalist Nick Fuentes and the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, who had made a series of antisemitic comments. Trump also was widely mocked for selling a series of digital trading cards that pictured him as a superhero, a cowboy and an astronaut, among others.
At the same time, he is the subject of a series of criminal investigations, including one into the discovery of hundreds of documents with classified markings at his Florida club and whether he obstructed justice by refusing to return them, as well as state and federal examinations 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 he's a favorite to win his party's nomination.
Stepanek, who was required to remain neutral until his term as New Hampshire party chair ends at Saturday's party meeting, dismissed the significance of Trump's slow start, which campaign officials say accounts for time 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 reelection. He said Trump's most loyal supporters continue to stand behind him.
"You have a lot of people who weren't with him in '15, '16, then became Trumpers, then became never-Trumpers," Stepanek said. "But the people who supported him in New Hampshire, who propelled him to his win in 2016 in the New Hampshire primary, they're all still there, waiting for the president."
Colvin reported from New York.