Trump seeks to shift his idling White House campaign back into gear
By Gram Slattery and Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Donald Trump will seek to kick his campaign for the 2024 Republican nomination into gear this weekend, with a pair of campaign stops in key early-voting states more than two months after he announced his intention to run.
The appearances in New Hampshire and South Carolina are an opportunity to address complaints from some fellow Republicans that his intended rematch with Democratic President Joe Biden has gotten off to a slow start, but they may also illustrate a weakening grip on the party.
Key South Carolina allies U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham and Governor Henry McMaster are expected to join Trump in an event at the state capitol, but some other well-known Republicans are staying away. They include two with possible White House ambitions of their own, former Governor Nikki Haley and U.S. Senator Tim Scott.
That is a sign that some key Republican donors and activists are looking for other options to challenge an expected Biden re-election campaign, including Haley as well as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, according to interviews with a dozen party officials, donors and strategists this week.
"I do not hear any state elected officials or big donors too excited about Trump," said one person who played a major role in Trump's previous campaigns in South Carolina. "The names that I hear them excited about are DeSantis and Haley."
About a year out from the start of party nominating contests, Trump carries some powerful advantages into his campaign. Polls regularly show him as the leading choice among Republican voters and his four turbulent years in the White House give him a tremendous advantage in name recognition.
He has been a prodigious fundraiser since leaving office, though his primary fundraising vehicle Save America is registered to fund Trump's political allies but not his own campaigns.
Watchdog groups have already accused Trump of illegally using his Save America war chest to help his presidential bid.
The nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center in November asked the Federal Election Commission to probe Save America's transfer of money to the Make America Great Again Inc, known as MAGA Inc, which is registered as an independent super PAC but is staffed by former Trump aides and is expected to spend money supporting Trump's campaign.
Save America gave MAGA Inc at least $60 million ahead of the Nov. 8 election. The super PAC also received financing from other sources and reported spending more than $15 million helping Republican Senate candidates in the midterms.
But some $40 million of Save America's contributions were made after the super PAC had largely wrapped up its election spending, and MAGA Inc reported having $54 million in cash as of Nov. 28. Save America reported having about $21 million in the bank through the same date.
Trump's official campaign, which he launched on Nov. 15, has not yet filed federal disclosures on its finances and has until Jan. 31 to give regulators details through the end of 2022.
"We'll see how this all shakes out. But I think it'll be dominated by DeSantis and Trump for a while," said Rob Jesmer, a campaign strategist and former executive director of the Republicans' Senate campaign arm.
Trump's own campaign dismissed the idea that his support within the party was weakening.
"President Trump is going to South Carolina to unveil his leadership team, which will show the significant support he has throughout the state, from grassroots leaders to elected officials," said spokesperson Steven Cheung. "President Trump is the undeniable leader of the Republican Party and anyone who questions that is simply living in a false reality."
A spokesperson for Scott said he will not attend Saturday's event due to a pre-existing commitment. Haley recently told Fox News that she is considering a White House run of her own.
Among other prominent elected South Carolina Republicans, a spokesperson for U.S. Representative Ralph Norman said he would not attend due to a pre-existing conflict, while representatives of three other House Republicans from South Carolina did not respond.
Congressmen Russell Fry and Joe Wilson will attend, spokespeople said.
Multiple Republicans interviewed for this story, who were granted anonymity to discuss internal party dynamics, said they would be watching to see whether Trump can deliver a forward-looking message, or will resort to personal attacks or false claims of election fraud that many blame for a poor Republican showing in the November midterm congressional elections.
"The fundamental question is: is he going to talk about the future or is he just going to talk about the 'stolen election,'" said a Republican official familiar with the inner workings of the Trump team. "You have to pivot to being future oriented."
(Reporting by Gram Slattery, Steve Holland and Jason Lange; Editing by Daniel Wallis)