On the Trail: Trump makes his return to NH on Saturday

By PAUL STEINHAUSER

For the Monitor

Published: 01-27-2023 5:42 PM

Former President Donald Trump returns Saturday to the state that first launched him toward the presidency as he takes his latest White House bid into a more active phase.

Trump, who in November announced his third presidential campaign, will visit New Hampshire, the state that for a century has held the first primary in the race for the White House. The former president will deliver the keynote address to hundreds of party leaders, elected officials and activists attending the New Hampshire GOP’s annual meeting, which this year will be held in Salem.

Trump’s stop will come a couple of hours before he heads to South Carolina, another crucial early-voting state that holds the third contest in the GOP’s presidential nominating calendar. That gathering at South Carolina’s state capitol building where he’s expected to name his leadership team in the Palmetto State, will be Trump’s first 2024 campaign event since announcing his candidacy in mid-November at his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida.

The former president is expected to receive a warm welcome from the crowd in New Hampshire, as Trump supporters and allies have expanded their grip over the state party in recent years.

“President Trump has long been a strong defender of New Hampshire’s First in the Nation primary status and we are excited that he will join us to deliver remarks to our members,” said Steve Stepanek, who co-chaired Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign in New Hampshire before becoming state party chair two years later.

While Trump is the only major Republican to date to launch a 2024 presidential campaign, and while he remains the most popular and influential politician in the GOP and the party’s most ferocious fundraiser when it comes to energizing the grassroots, the first two months of his latest White House bid have been anything but spectacular.

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Political pundits from both the left and the right torched his campaign launch, and he’s been criticized by Democrats and some Republicans for controversial actions and comments he’s made during the past two months. Plus, in the wake of a lackluster performance by the GOP in the midterm elections – when the party underperformed in what many expected to be a red-wave election – Trump has also been blamed for elevating polarizing Republican nominees who ended up losing in November. While he didn’t take sides in New Hampshire’s combustible GOP primaries in September, the MAGA-style candidates who won the U.S. Senate and both congressional nominations went down in flames in November’s general election.

Two days before the former president’s arrival in the Granite State, a new public opinion poll by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center suggested that Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida holds a double-digit lead over Trump in a hypothetical 2024 GOP presidential nomination matchup in the first primary state.

DeSantis, whom pundits expect will declare his candidacy for president later this year but who has yet to say if he’ll launch a campaign, stands at 42% support in the survey of likely GOP presidential primary voters in New Hampshire, with Trump at 30%.

Until recently, Trump was the clear and overwhelming front-runner in the early 2024 GOP presidential nomination polls. But in a handful of national surveys released last month, Trump trailed DeSantis, whose standing with conservatives across the country has soared over the past three years. DeSantis was overwhelmingly re-elected in November for a second term leading Florida, a one-time battleground state that’s turned increasingly red the past two cycles.

Trump allies and supporters highlight that public opinion polling has long undercounted the former president’s support, dating back to his first campaign for the White House in 2016.

“DeSantis doesn’t stand a chance in a primary. Donald Trump’s still probably got 35-40% of the vote and in a primary with a bunch of Republicans, he wins,” claimed former state Rep. Al Baldasaro, a former state representative who was a top Trump ally and surrogate in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections.

Baldsaro, who attended Trump’s 2024 launch in Florida, believes New Hampshire is still Trump country and that there are plenty of “Trumpers” in the state who don’t advertise their support for the former president.

“The silent majority is alive and well,” he emphasized.

And he said “it’s a win-win for Trump to come to New Hampshire and address the Republicans”

“He’s motivating the troops that he’s in it – he’s in the run,” Baldasaro said. “I have people calling me and texting me that they want to get involved. I have no doubt in my mind that his trip is going to motivate them to come out and get involved.”

But Trump has plenty of GOP detractors in New Hampshire, starting with the most popular Republican in the state – Gov. Chris Sununu, who won’t be attending the state party meeting.

“The party is not galvanizing all around him,” Sununu said of Trump in an interview with this reporter earlier this month.

Sununu supported Trump during the 2016 general election and again as the then-president unsuccessfully ran for re-election in 2020. However, Sununu has long pushed back against Trump’s unproven claims that the 2020 presidential election was “rigged” and “stolen.” He also started stating in early 2021 that the GOP is larger than any one person, which was perceived as a swipe at the former president.

The governor, who’s mulling a presidential bid of his own in 2024, has repeatedly argued that the GOP should “move on” from Trump and that “there’s lots of other great leaders out there. There’s lots of other great opportunity to bring great ideas and things to the table.”

Veteran New Hampshire-based national Republican consultant Jim Merrill noted that “Trump comes into the primary well positioned to succeed but not the force he used to be. It will be a competitive primary and I expect a number of candidates will ultimately run.”

“Increasing it seems like the electorate is ready to look to the future and move forward,” Merrill, a veteran of numerous GOP presidential campaigns, said. “Whether Donald Trump can run a campaign focused on the future and not the past is going to be a question for him about whether he can succeed here or not.”

Trump won’t be the only actual or possible 2024 Republican presidential contender speaking at the NHGOP meeting.

Former Republican Rep. Will Hurd of Texas will also address the audience. The trip by Hurd, who served three terms in Congress before deciding against running for re-election in 2020, will spark speculation that the one-time clandestine officer in the CIA is mulling a bid for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.

“I completely understand that,” Hurd said. “I’m aware of the situation and I’m aware of the importance that New Hampshire plays in our political system. And I’m excited to engage with Granite Staters and understand their perspectives and see how my message resonates with them.”

Hurd, who was the only Black Republican in the House during his tenure in Congress, grabbed national attention last spring during a well-publicized book tour for “American Reboot: An Idealist’s Guide to Getting Big Things Done.”

In his book, Hurd urged his party to rethink its style of politics and offered ideas to reform America’s political system and keep the nation competitive against China and other powers.

“Here’s what I have learned over the last couple of years – nobody wants to see a repeat of 2020,” Hurd argued. “I think there are a lot of Republicans that want to see conservative policies enacted, but if we don’t win elections, we can’t enact those conservative policies.”

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