COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Donald Trump used the college football rivalry weekend to bask in his supporters in a state and region crucial to his presidential fortunes as he tried to edge out his Republican opponent Nikki Haley on her home turf in Clemson-South give Carolina football game.
The former president and current front-runner for the 2024 Republican nomination arrived at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia on Saturday evening to chant: “We want Trump! We want Trump!” of fans gathered for the annual Palmetto Bowl, the state’s largest sporting event of the year.
Haley, a Clemson alumna and trustee who was twice elected governor of South Carolina, did not attend.
Trump was the guest of Governor Henry McMaster, Haley’s successor. The entourage, who entered through a veritable tunnel of Trump supporters on their way to a private suite, included senior U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who gave the former president a show of local political muscle during a match with Haley’s alma mater, Clemson. , where she is also a member of the supervisory board.
McMaster ascended to the governor’s office in 2017 when Trump elevated Haley to ambassador to the United Nations. Graham and Haley have mostly been allies over the years. But both men now support Trump, and the former president enjoys a wide lead in the polls among Republican primary voters. That includes nationally and in early nominating states like South Carolina.
At halftime, Trump came onto the field with McMaster, drawing mostly cheers and a bit of boos as he walked around, posed for a few photos and waved. ESPN’s broadcast on the SEC Network also showed the former president sitting with McMaster during the game.
Hours before kickoff, Trump’s campaign announced that he had been endorsed by “more South Carolina lawmakers than all of the opposing candidates combined,” including new support from six state lawmakers who had previously endorsed U.S. Sen. Tim Scott before the South Carolinian announced his presidential bid ended. earlier this month.
Columbia was ready for Trump’s visit. Around the stadium Saturday afternoon, more than a half-dozen electronic billboards adorned the capital city of Columbia with a message noting Trump’s 2020 election loss and his ongoing lawsuits: “You lost. You are guilty. Welcome to Columbia, Donald.”
Some vendors around the location, meanwhile, were selling Trump-related merchandise, including “Trump 2020” flags, from the previous election cycle. And some fans who entered the stadium before Trump’s arrival chanted “Let’s Go Brandon!” – a derogatory reference to President Joe Biden, who defeated Trump in 2020.
“We’re doing it in a big way in the South,” said Brandon Beach, a Georgia state senator and a major Trump supporter, explaining why Trump would choose to come to the Palmetto Bowl. “President Trump knows he can connect with people, and they will connect with him.”
Asked about the upcoming primaries with Trump, Haley spokesperson Olivia Perez-Cubas called her “the only candidate with momentum” and referenced Haley’s previous come-from-behind victories.
“The people of South Carolina know their governor has what it takes to win because they’ve seen her beat the odds before — not just once, but twice,” she said.
Trump has previously enjoyed adapting Haley in her own state. “In 2016, South Carolina gave us 44 out of 46 counties — that’s not that bad,” he said at a Republican Party state dinner in August. “I can’t wait to win all 46 of them. We want to win all 46.”
South Carolina comes in fourth on the Republican voting calendar, behind Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, with the first primaries in the south of the state on February 24, 2024. Several southern states will follow on March 5 as part of Super Tuesday. slate with more delegates up for grabs than on any other day in the primary campaign.
Trump’s performances in South Carolina and Super Tuesday in 2016 earned him a delegation leader he would never relinquish.
Haley has responded to Trump in recent weeks by emphasizing her roots as she campaigns in Iowa, where voting opens nationally with the Jan. 15 caucuses.
“I’m not going anywhere,” she said recently in Ankeny, predicting strong turnout in the caucuses. “Then I will face Trump in my home state of South Carolina. And we will take it.”
Trump, who tried to buy an NFL team in the 1980s and ended up being part of a failed alternative league, has enjoyed sports cameos over the years. But college football has welcomed him in its most generous way. Earlier this fall, he attended the Iowa State-Iowa game in Ames, Iowa, and stopped at a fraternity house before kickoff. And while president, he attended the 2018 national championship game in Atlanta and the 2019 Alabama-LSU regular season game in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
That game in Alabama came just days after Trump was booed by professional baseball fans while attending a World Series home game of the Washington Nationals.
Barrow reported from Atlanta.