Trump makes his first big move in New Hampshire

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The choice of Stepanek signals a potential return to the roots of Trump’s 2016 campaign in the state that handed him his first primary win that year. Trump lost New Hampshire by a fraction of a point in that general election. Four years later, the state slipped away from him badly, as he lost to President Joe Biden by 7 points.

“It’s a big deal. He was just the leader of our entire state party,” Karoline Leavitt, a former Trump aide who lost her congressional race here last year, said of Stepanek in an interview. “I think that sends a clear message to the rest of the Republican field that may be wanting to get in that New Hampshire is Trump’s territory.”

But Stepanek’s involvement is rankling some Republican activists. State committee members were clamoring for a change in party leadership after a disastrous election in which the GOP’s slate of hard-right, pro-Trump congressional candidates got pummeled and the party lost seats in the state Legislature. Stepanek was expected to face a challenger for party chair before he decided not to seek a third term. That job now belongs to Chris Ager, who beat one of Trump’s 2020 state co-chairs, Lou Gargiulo, for the post.

And it will do little to quell concern among some of Trump’s former allies in the state about the seriousness of his operation as he mounts his third bid for the White House.

Associates from Trump’s past campaigns have expressed frustration with what they describe as lackluster — or nonexistent — communication since his November launch. At least one key ally was left in the dark about the former president’s visit this weekend, his first trip back to the state since 2020.

And while Trump hats dotted the high school auditorium where party faithful gathered to hear him Saturday, several old allies and supporters say they’re holding off on recommitting as they wait to see how the Republican primary develops.

Interviews with 20 former Trump aides and allies, veteran presidential campaign operatives and current and former party officials revealed heavy interest among Republican operatives and activists in his biggest potential rival — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

And a University of New Hampshire survey released this week showed the Florida governor with a 12-point lead over Trump among likely New Hampshire GOP primary voters — despite DeSantis not setting foot in the state in recent months. Younger operatives in particular expressed an eagerness to be scooped up by DeSantis, whom they see as the next big thing.

“President Trump starts the [New Hampshire] primary season as a frontrunner but his standing isn’t what it once was,” veteran New Hampshire consultant Jim Merrill said. “There is curiosity among voters and operatives alike to check out the potential field.”

That new reality was on full display at Saturday’s party meeting, where a cardboard cutout of DeSantis greeted attendees heading to hear Trump speak. As Stepanek prepared to hand over the reins and return to the Trump campaign, outgoing Vice Chair Pamela Tucker was signing up volunteers for Ron to the Rescue, a pro-DeSantis super PAC formed after the midterms to boost the governor if he runs for president. It was one of two draft-DeSantis groups working the gathering.

“I met so many people through the Trump organization when we developed that, and they’re all like: ‘Yeah, we need Ron DeSantis, because we want to win,’” Tucker said in an interview.

Other potential contenders are also drawing interest — and have spent years cutting into Trump’s advantages in New Hampshire. Former Vice President Mike Pence, former U.N. ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have become fixtures in the state after making several visits each the past two years. Former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has also made the trek north to “Politics & Eggs” at Saint Anselm, a prerequisite stop for would-be presidential hopefuls. Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) has headlined multiple party fundraisers over the years.

The state’s popular four-term governor, Chris Sununu, is a wildcard. Sununu hasn’t ruled out a presidential bid and has been acting like someone who’s gearing up to run, though several seasoned operatives in the state doubt he’ll go for it after declining to run for Senate last year.

Michael Biundo, a veteran New Hampshire GOP strategist who served as a national adviser on Trump’s 2016 campaign, said bringing on Stepanek was a “smart” move by the Trump team to try and allay concerns about his lack of operation in the state and curb chatter about his potential rivals.

But, Biundo said, “they are going to need to do a lot more to change the reality on the ground.”

The interviews with Republicans highlight the steep hurdles ahead for Trump in New Hampshire. Despite his pedigree as former president and de facto leader of the GOP, nothing will be handed to him.

Some Republicans see Trump’s early trip as a sign the former president expects a crowded primary — and is willing to compete. They also caution that these are early days, and that Trump still has time to assemble a full team and organize his campaign, especially with other competitors taking their time getting in.

Trump hit on that point repeatedly as he spoke Saturday to some 400 GOP activists — a contrast to the arena-size crowds he commanded in the run-up to the 2020 election.

“I have two years,” Trump said to cheers. “I’m more angry now and I’m more committed now than I ever was.”

Republicans have been waiting for Trump to emerge from Mar-a-Lago after keeping an uncharacteristically low profile since his fall announcement.

His lack of infrastructure buildup in New Hampshire had concerned some Republicans who worked on his previous campaigns. His New Hampshire trip wasn’t added to his schedule until Monday, nearly two weeks after aides announced plans for an event in South Carolina.

Fred Doucette, a former Trump campaign co-chair in the state who has not yet committed for 2024, said Trump “re-energized and re-engaged some of the people in New Hampshire” on Saturday, calling it “a good start.”

Joshua Whitehouse, who served as Trump’s New Hampshire coalitions director in 2016 and went on to work in his administration, said in an interview that the former president’s “grassroots are still there” but that the “main gap is staffing and infrastructure.”

“Once he puts those ducks in a row, he can be smooth sailing,” Whitehouse said.

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( With inputs from : www.politico.com )

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