The Memo: Trump hits the road after lackluster campaign launch

Former President Trump is ramping up his 2024 campaign for the White House with visits to two key primary states on Saturday.

Trump will go to New Hampshire on Saturday morning before appearing at an event in South Carolina with Gov. Henry McMaster (R) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) later in the day.

The shift into a higher gear of campaigning is welcome among some Trump loyalists who have grown frustrated with what they see as a lackluster beginning to his campaign.

Trump launched his bid to return to the Oval Office on Nov. 15, just one week after several of his most high-profile endorsees suffered disappointing results in the midterm elections.

But the launch took the form of an underwhelming speech at Mar-a-Lago with few big names in attendance. After that, there were few of the standard moves that usually accompany a campaign’s early steps. Instead, Trump sputtered out of the gate.

Some figures in Trump’s orbit, granted anonymity to speak candidly, lamented that other possible candidates such as former Vice President Mike Pence and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were making early trips to crucial states while Trump largely remained out of public view.

One source supportive of Trump, with knowledge of the planning of both Saturday events, expressed lingering concern about a lethargic pace.

“Doing any stops in early primary states is better than not doing them,” this source said. “But the fact that we are now 2 1/2 months into the presidential campaign and haven’t made strategic hires is still a little troubling.”

Trump will be hoping to begin quietening such voices, especially with the event in South Carolina.

The show of support from McMaster and Graham in the Palmetto State is significant given that two other South Carolinians are potential rivals for the 2024 GOP nomination.

The most notable is former Gov. Nikki Haley, who went on to become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under Trump. A less high-profile possibility is a bid by Sen. Tim Scott (R).

Haley gives every appearance of edging toward a run, though Scott’s intentions are unclear.

Back in November, Haley told a meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition, regarding a 2024 bid, that she would “look at it in a serious way.” CNBC reported on Tuesday that Haley is “putting together a national finance committee and communications team in advance of a potential campaign.”

Multiple sources in Trump’s circle drew a distinction between Saturday’s South Carolina visit, which was long-planned and has clear objectives, and the New Hampshire trip, which was added early this week and amounts to Trump dropping into the state GOP’s annual meeting.

“In South Carolina, he is trying to demonstrate a broad swath of establishment support, including the governor and the lieutenant governor,” said one figure in Trump’s orbit. “The New Hampshire thing is just kinda showing the flag.”

One of the pro-Trump sources who spoke to The Hill said that they believe the New Hampshire visit had been arranged at least in part to mute growing criticism that the former president has not been campaigning vigorously enough.

This source noted that, in contrast to the support Trump will receive from McMaster in South Carolina, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu is a moderate Republican and critic of the former president who is himself mulling a presidential run.

Whatever the internal calculations, Saturday’s trip at least has the potential to begin righting the ship after an uncertain start.

Barry Bennett, who was a senior adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign but who is not involved in the 2024 campaign, said that the early months of the quest had gone “not very well if you look at the polling. He controls his own fate but I don’t think he has done himself any favors, making his support even smaller by attacking other Republicans.”

Even so, Bennett acknowledged that Trump is uncommonly well-attuned to the issues that matter to the GOP base. Public events, he contended, were likely to sharpen this instinct in a way that would not be possible if Trump were to stay cooped up at Mar-a-Lago.

“When he gets out, he actually talks to people and he does have a remarkably good political antenna,” Bennett said. “If he is going to South Carolina and he is going to listen to some folks, that’s a good idea. If he is going to say how evangelical ministers are disloyal and Mitch McConnell is evil, that’s not such a good idea.”

The worry in some pro-Trump quarters is that the uneven start to the 2024 campaign has given other potential candidates, most notably Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), time to build support and momentum.

DeSantis has been plunging into the culture wars with vigor in recent weeks, issuing edicts and headline-grabbing statements about hot-button issues including race, education and — a favorite DeSantis target — “wokeness.”

Team Trump contends that DeSantis has not yet faced real scrutiny. When that comes, they argue, the gloss could fast wear off the Florida governor.

Trump leads the hypothetical GOP field in the vast majority of polls. But in some surveys, DeSantis is snapping at his heels.

Saturday could see Trump begin to turn that around — or, at the very least, shake off the torpor that has characterized the start of his 2024 bid.

“He is very talented at that kind of stuff,” said Bennett. “But he is living in this bitter fog, which is not the path to victory. You gotta get out of that fog.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

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