Trump had a rocky start as he emerged from seclusion to hit the 2024 campaign trail.
A pair of events in South Carolina and New Hampshire illustrated his staying power in the GOP.
But the former president's appearances also underlined his status as a vulnerable front-runner.
Former President Donald Trump's return to the campaign trail over the weekend ended his bizarre self-imposed seclusion that saw a declared presidential candidate do few of the actual things candidates are supposed to do.
In campaigning in New Hampshire and South Carolina, Trump checked off the box of visiting two of four early states that loom over the GOP's presidential primary and caucus calendar. His presence also illustrated that while he is the current frontrunner, he is not scaring opponents off the field as one might expect from a former president.
The reality is that Trump is only beginning to take his third campaign seriously. In the meantime, senior operatives are gathering support for one of his possible opponents just outside of the room. But the rest of the entire field is frozen, unable or unwilling to grapple with Trump head-on.
Rival campaigns are poaching support at Trump's own rallies
For example, take his time in New Hampshire. Trump's commanding win in the Granite State in 2016 after a humiliating loss in Iowa began his glide path to the nomination and eventually the White House. While the former president worked the room, reporters found volunteers for a pro-Ron DeSantis super PAC signing up volunteers for the Florida governor, who has yet to even announce his intentions. That fact didn't stop outgoing Vice Chairwoman Pamela Tucker from signing up volunteers.
Just before the gathering, a University of New Hampshire poll found that DeSantis held a 12-point lead among likely GOP primary voters. DeSantis hasn't even visited the state for months.
According to Politico, Trump's speech at the New Hampshire GOP's annual meeting was added to his schedule at the last minute. The apparent lack of communication about the former president's first visit to New Hampshire since 2020 came despite Trump confirming his trip to South Carolina weeks prior.
But no one is willing to take him on directly
The good news for Trump is that for the time being the rest of the potential 2024 campaign field remains frozen. Former Vice President Mike Pence is dealing with his own classified documents mess. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is sniping at former US Ambassador to United Nations Nikki Haley. And it remains to be seen what former 2016 hopefuls like Sen. Ted Cruz, Sen. Marco Rubio, and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will do.
Trump's visit to South Carolina also appears to have gone more smoothly. Gov. Henry McMaster, who more or less owes Trump his job, re-upped his support for the former president. Ditto for Sen. Lindsey Graham, who rebuked Republicans who want Trump's policies without Trump personally. In 2016, Trump locked down support across the South, something he'll want to replicate, particularly if the 2024 nomination turns into a protracted fight.
There's a lane to take on Trump, but nobody is stepping into it
None of these factors are evidence of a juggernaut campaign. The reality is that there has always been an opening to challenge Trump. The question is will any candidate want to lock horns with a former president, as The Atlantic's McKay Coppins outlined in a piece on how 2024 could look a lot like 2016, with the GOP privately wishing for Trump's demise while doing little to actually bring his comeuppance.
"None of Donald Trump's opponents ever have the balls to throw him the damn brick," Terry Sullivan, one of Rubio's top 2016 operatives, told Coppins. "They just hope someone else will. Hope isn't a winning strategy."