Trump Tries a New Campaign Tack: Small-Scale

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Donald J. Trump campaigned during his first presidential race in a distinctly audacious style, giving free helicopter rides to children at the Iowa State Fair and using his Trump-branded 757 jetliner as an event backdrop.

He rolled out a second campaign in equally unusual fashion, filing re-election paperwork on the same day as his inauguration and holding 10 signature mega-rallies before the end of his first year in office.

For his third campaign, it’s back to basics — for the first time.

More than two months after formally opening his White House comeback bid, the 76-year-old former president was holding his first two public events on Saturday. Both were the type of textbook campaign stops he mostly skipped in his first two runs for office.

In New Hampshire, Mr. Trump spoke in a high school auditorium in Salem, where he addressed an annual state party meeting. In South Carolina, where he has previously attracted thousands to rallies, Mr. Trump was set to introduce his state leadership team at the State Capitol, an extraordinary setting for a politician known for upsetting the establishment and taking direct aim at longstanding public institutions.

After attacking President Biden and other leading Democrats, Mr. Trump said in Salem: “They said, ‘He’s not campaigning. Maybe he’s lost a step.’ I am more angry now and I am more committed now than ever.”

Mr. Trump’s attempt to drape himself with the typical trappings of a traditional campaign is an unspoken acknowledgment that he begins the race in one of the most politically vulnerable positions of his public life. He remains the clear front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, yet the solidity of his support seems increasingly in doubt.

Longtime donors have been reluctant to recommit. Leaders in the Republican National Committee are openly encouraging other candidates to run. Voters rejected the handpicked candidates he vowed would win Republicans control of the Senate, but whose losses instead left the chamber in Democratic hands.

“There’s no question former President Trump has lost some people — independents, some people in his base — so he’s got to come out of the gate slowly,” said Jim Renacci, a former Ohio congressman and a Trump acolyte. “He’s got to work to get them back.”

Mr. Renacci provided one of Mr. Trump’s earliest endorsements in the 2016 campaign. But he said he was waiting to see how the rest of the Republican field took shape before deciding on whom to back for the 2024 nomination.

Since announcing his campaign in November, Mr. Trump has spent much of the past two months out of the public eye. He has spoken at private events, worked behind the scenes to help House Speaker Kevin McCarthy win his leadership position and maintained an aggressive schedule on the golf course. And he has been busy doing something that’s yet another sign he’s eager to embrace a new tack: policy videos.

Over the past six weeks on his social media platform, Truth Social, Mr. Trump has been posting videos about his policy positions, including plans to protect Social Security and Medicare and ban Chinese citizens from owning U.S. farmland or telecommunications, energy, technology or medical supply companies. The videos, in which the former president speaks directly to the camera, are aimed at reassuring supporters that he’s focused on topics other than his 2020 defeat, an issue that flopped with midterm voters.

Still, old habits die hard. Within three minutes of beginning his speech in Salem, the one-term president said, “I also believe we won two general elections, if you want to know the truth.”

One of the key trouble spots for him has been in attracting top-dollar backing. Mr. Trump has largely relied on small online donations but has shed support from some deep-pocketed donors and has struggled to secure commitments from others.

In recent weeks, two longtime Republican financiers — Bernie Marcus, the Home Depot founder, and Miriam Adelson, a physician and philanthropist and the widow of Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate — have not committed to matching their previous financial support for his campaigns, according to people familiar with the discussions who insisted on anonymity to speak about private conversations.

A spokesman for Ms. Adelson said she was planning to sit out the Republican primary.

Still, Mr. Trump maintains his perch as the most powerful Republican. An Emerson College poll this week showed Mr. Trump with support from 55 percent of primary voters, nearly twice as much as his closest competitor, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, in a hypothetical matchup. The same poll showed Mr. Trump in a statistical tie against Mr. Biden in a potential rematch next year.

“The campaign is firing on all cylinders and continues to build up an operation that will be unmatched,” Steven Cheung, Mr. Trump’s campaign spokesman, said in a statement. “President Trump’s significant lead in poll after poll shows that there is no other candidate who can even come close to matching the enthusiasm and excitement of him returning to the White House.”

In November and December, Mr. Trump’s standing among Republicans dipped in public opinion polls after his failure to help deliver the “red wave” he had promised voters in the midterm elections and after he had dinner with Kanye West, who has been denounced for making antisemitic statements, and Nick Fuentes, an outspoken antisemite and prominent young white supremacist.

Mr. Trump was stunned by the criticism over the dinner, particularly that from close advisers, according to people familiar with the conversations.

The biggest risk to Mr. Trump’s campaign may not be political so much as legal: the five criminal and civil investigations targeting both his conduct before he was a candidate in 2016 and his efforts to thwart the peaceful transfer of power after he lost in November 2020.

But Mr. Trump must also reassure Republicans that he can win over general election voters.

Republicans have struggled through three disappointing election cycles with Mr. Trump as the face of the party — a situation the party has been unwilling to confront, or even fully examine.

Wavering support from some of the nation’s evangelical leaders — whose congregants provided crucial backing to Mr. Trump in his ascent to the White House — has raised the possibility of a tectonic shift in Republican politics.

And in South Carolina on Saturday, Mr. Trump’s leadership team was set to be without two of the state’s most prominent politicians: former Gov. Nikki Haley and Senator Tim Scott.

Ms. Haley, who served as ambassador to the United Nations in the Trump administration, is weighing her own Republican presidential campaign.

Mr. Scott, the keynote speaker at Mr. Trump’s last presidential nominating convention, has asked allies in the state to hold off endorsing the former president while he similarly considers a potential national campaign, according to two Republicans familiar with the conversations.

Jane Brady, a Republican National Committee member from Delaware, said Mr. Trump’s pugilistic personality had long been a distraction from his policies, which, generally, much of the party supports.

“Some people look past that, and some people don’t,” she said.

Alex Olson, a Republican strategist, was in Salem, N.H., on behalf of Ron to the Rescue, a new super PAC that is pushing for a 2024 bid by Mr. DeSantis. (The governor and the group are unaffiliated.)

“We have no problem with what Trump has done as president,” Mr. Olson said. “I supported him. But DeSantis can bring together the Chamber of Commerce Republicans and the MAGA Republicans. He is less bombastic, and he understands the legislative process.”

Roland Morasse, 71, of Salem, who had come to see Mr. Trump speak but was angered to find that the event was not for the public — “Shame on them!” he said, adding that “it is only for the elites” — said that he had no problem with Mr. DeSantis, but that he still preferred the former president. “DeSantis would be a good candidate as V.P.,” he said.

Mr. Renacci listed several reasons he wasn’t ready to support Mr. Trump’s presidential bid. The former lawmaker said the party needed “a new face” and also acknowledged that he was stung that Mr. Trump had not done more to help his 2022 primary campaign against Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio.

“Former President Trump was a great candidate to defeat Hillary Clinton in 2016,” Mr. Renacci said. “But at this stage of the game, we need to look at who the candidates are and see if there is someone who cannot only take us in a new direction but also not split the American people in the process.”

Michael C. Bender reported from Columbia, S.C., and Mei-Ling McNamara from Salem, N.H. Reid J. Epstein contributed reporting from Washington, and Maggie Haberman from New York.

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