(SOUTH CAROLINA) — Former President Donald Trump is embarking on his first campaign swing of the 2024 presidential cycle on Saturday where he is expected to announce his leadership team from South Carolina as he seeks the White House for the third time – but his appearance comes as some conservatives in the state say their support for Trump isn’t locked in.
Trump will deliver remarks from the Columbia State House in an event hosted by Gov. Henry McMaster who has endorsed Trump, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who is widely expected to make his Trump endorsement official on Saturday.
It’s still unclear at this point who else will appear with Trump on stage in Columbia. Trump advisors have reportedly “blanketed” South Carolina Republican officials with “pleading” phone calls in recent weeks to drum up endorsements and attendees, according to The Washington Post.
“There’s some reserve because everybody knows what Donald Trump is going to come in and say: rewind, press play, change your city name, and you’re going to hear the same thing,” Dave Wilson, the president of evangelical group Palmetto Family Council, said in an interview with ABC News.
“And not to say that the former president doesn’t have something to bring to the table, but I think that a lot of conservative voters are saying, ‘all right, let me see what else is out there before I decide whether I’m going to jump back on a train that I already know,"” Wilson said.
Trump is also slated to speak at the New Hampshire Republican Party’s annual meeting in Salem on Saturday morning before he heads down south, a likely indication his campaign is kicking into high gear.
His visit could also be seen as a warning shot to New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, who is said to be considering his own run for the Republican presidential ticket in 2024. Sununu’s office told ABC News the governor has made no plans to attend the annual meeting this year.
The Trump campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment from ABC News.
Trump and his allies’ appeals for support in South Carolina come amid a potentially competitive nomination process as former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., are weighing presidential runs themselves. Neither party has confirmed their intentions to run, but Haley is widely expected to announce in the coming weeks while Scott hasn’t ruled it out.
“I think Trump is hoping that a good showing this weekend will encourage both of them to stay out of the race,” Kirk Randazzo, a professor of political science at the University of South Carolina, said to ABC News. “That said, there will be appearances by Senator Lindsay Graham and Governor Henry McMaster, both of whom previously relied on Trump for their political positions…beyond these two individuals, there are not many more notable individuals joining Trump on stage this weekend.”
Graham has been working the phones to drum up support for Trump, telling allies to get on board because he believes Trump is the likely presidential nominee, sources familiar with the senator told ABC News. The Washington Post first reported the details of these conversations.
But aside from close allies, “Republicans are increasingly backing away from Trump,” Randazzo said.
“The evidence indicates that they are looking for other individuals who can champion MAGA policies but who do not possess the negative baggage associated with Trump,” he added, pointing to Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor from Florida, as an alternative candidate.
Many Republicans have noticed the last two or three elections where Republicans lost in large part because of Trump and the candidates he openly endorsed, Randazzo said. “This, combined with his brusque personality and behavior, have folks thinking they’re better served by distancing themselves from him,” he said.
South Carolina Republican Party chair Drew McKissick is not expected to attend the Saturday event because he is attending Republican National Committee meetings in California. Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., a close ally of Trump is not expected to attend the campaign event due to a scheduling conflict, his office confirmed to ABC News.
“With Nikki Haley and Tim Scott in the mix as South Carolinians, Donald Trump as the former president, as well as members of his administration also running against him in [Mike] Pence and [Mike] Pompeo – it begs the question that a lot of people are asking right now and that is: who’s going to take the lead?” Wilson said.
“I think that there are a lot of conservatives in South Carolina who are taking a wait-and-see kind of attitude,” he said.
Wilson noted that several members of the South Carolina General Assembly have told him privately that they would not be attending Trump’s event on Saturday.
“Core conservatives are asking this question: who’s going to be able to do go beyond the next four years? The best Donald Trump can offer us is four more years as president. Conservatives are looking for somebody who can become a standard-bearer, who can go beyond four years to eight years,” Wilson said.
“In South Carolina, we really kind of take the importance of us as first-in-the-south primary very seriously,” Wilson added. “For us, it is a one-year job interview. And we expect you to show up at our towns large and small, we expect you to come to our restaurants, we expect you to show up at our churches, we expect you to have conversations with us.”
Republican voters in South Carolina primaries have voted for the eventual GOP presidential nominee in every cycle since 1980, except in 2012 when the Republican Party nominated Mitt Romney.
Haley and Scott are already making the rounds because they benefit from residing in South Carolina, Wilson noted, but others including Pence and Pompeo have also notably made various stops in the state in the past several months. He cautioned other candidates to take the southern state seriously.
“People like Ron DeSantis – Ron DeSantis needs to start making his way to South Carolina because the one-year job interview starts now,” he said.
A spokesperson for DeSantis did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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