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Politico
POLITICO
1 Jul 2023
Natalie Allison Lucy Hodgman Steven Shepard


NextImg:Trump rally packs small city in South Carolina show of force

PICKENS, S.C. — Donald Trump built his 2016 campaign on the ability to pack supporters into arenas and fields. In his first early-state rally of 2024, he commandeered a small city.

Taking over the movie-set-like Main Street of a town of 3,300 in the hills of South Carolina on Saturday, Trump put on a show of force not only in his stronghold of rural America, but in an early primary state where he remains dominant.

In front of an estimated 20,000 people, Trump barged onto the home-state turf of two of his primary opponents, Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott. The size of Trump’s crowd — and its fervor — was the latest ominous sign not only for them but for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Trump’s top rival, who is desperately trying to peel off part of Trump’s base in this first-in-the-South primary state.

In the concert-like atmosphere — with thousands standing for hours and dozens falling ill from the July heat — Trump appeared once again to dwarf the field.

“It was hardworking patriots like you who built this country, and it is hardworking patriots like you who are going to save our country,” Trump told the crowd, accompanied by a dramatic musical score.

A woman drenched in sweat raised her red Gatorade to the sky and swayed to the music. A man in a wheelchair removed his shirt to endure the heat.

“2024 is our final battle,” Trump continued. “Under our leadership, the forgotten men and women will be forgotten no longer.”

People flocked both from surrounding counties and other states to glimpse the twice-indicted former president, whose presence in the 3-square-mile city shut down businesses and strained municipal resources. Trump seized on the city’s long-planned annual Independence Day festival, announcing the rally two weeks ago after Trump’s team — with help from Republican elected officials in the state — convinced the city to agree to Secret Service shutdowns around its main business strip.

It was a sharp contrast from the event DeSantis held in South Carolina last week — a more subdued affair where he took questions in a North Augusta community center.

In Pickens, vendors set up days in advance, and local homeowners tried to rent out $50 parking spaces in their front yards. Some attendees slept outside the entry gate overnight. The line to enter snaked through the city center Saturday as the entrepreneurial-minded hawked camping chairs, bottled water and hot dogs. Rallygoers ripped cardboard boxes into pieces to make fans, and Trump’s campaign frantically brought around pallets of water and Gatorade to hydrate the crowd.

Around 11 a.m., when Trump’s branded plane flew overhead, the street erupted in cheers. The school choir from Greenville that was recently stopped from singing the national anthem inside the U.S. Capitol rotunda performed. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has endorsed Trump, was repeatedly drowned out in boos.

“I was open,” Tena Stark, a native of Pickens who now lives in Tennessee, said of her thinking about the Republican primary field. “But my mind is made up now. I feel like he’s the strongest man for the job.”

Her husband, Bruce, said Trump was the only one who could get him to travel four hours and show up at 4:45 a.m. to stand in the heat for a rally. Momentarily blanking on DeSantis’ name, he said he liked the candidate from Florida but thinks DeSantis needs “more time” to be prepared to handle the job of president.

Trump could hardly have selected a more favorable location for his rally. Pickens County supported Trump more than any other part of South Carolina in the 2020 election, with nearly 75 percent of the vote going to Trump. But his appearance here was a shot across the bow in a critical primary state with two home-grown contenders.

Haley, the state’s former governor, and Scott, its current junior senator, are under especially heavy pressure to perform well on their home turf. And unlike the other early states — where Trump is also dominating in polling — South Carolina is one in which the former president has robust establishment support. He has secured the endorsements of the state’s governor, senior senator and three congressmen — something statewide and federally elected Republicans have so far refrained from doing in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.

“This state picks presidents,” former Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, who has also endorsed Trump, said from the stage. “When we come together and show this kind of support for an individual, it speaks volumes about the eventual nominee.”

By the time Trump took the stage, the crowd was already beginning to thin out, with an apparent exodus of his supporters needing shade, cold drinks and a break from the blistering sun.

Walter Ford, who operates Main Street Pizzeria, initially tried to use Facebook to presell parking spaces at his business and considered selling pizza by the slice to passersby, but he eventually gave up and decided to “take the loss” by closing. Ford said he isn’t upset, calling the rally a “historic event for our little city.”

It was also a major disruption. The Pickens police chief told the local newspaper his officers had to study “every parking lot in this city” to figure out how to accommodate the massive crowd. And, most notably, Trump himself called into the Pickens County Courier last week to give an exclusive interview to the weekly newspaper, calling Pickens “my area.”

“Those are the people I love,” Trump told reporter Jason Evans. “We’ll break some records. We’ll break them together.”

Trump held his first rally of the 2024 race in Waco, Texas, in March, but Trump’s rally here was his first in an early-nominating state after one scheduled for Iowa in May was canceled at the last minute over weather concerns.

In his address Saturday, which was set to be followed by the city’s regularly scheduled Independence Day weekend festivities and fireworks, Trump expressed at length his grievances over multiple criminal cases pending against him. Speaking for more than an hour, Trump railed against President Joe Biden while briefly criticizing DeSantis, eliciting light booing from the crowd as he attacked DeSantis’ record on farming.

It was the latest in a series of elaborate July 4 events Trump has taken part in in recent years, such as his speech at Mount Rushmore in 2020 and his “Salute to America” event on the National Mall in 2019, which made him the first president to give an Independence Day address there in 68 years.

Nate Leupp, the former chair of the Greenville County Republican Party, said mere curiosity about logistics and how Pickens was going to pull off the event was prompting some Republicans he knew to go.

“This one being outside in a small rural town has gotten a lot of people interested in it,” Leupp said ahead of the rally. “I’ve heard of a lot of people wanting to go just for that reason.”