COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Donald Trump is using a college football rivalry weekend to bask among his supporters in a state and region that are key to his presidential fortunes, while potentially upstaging his Republican opponent Nikki Haley on her home turf.
The former president and current front-runner for the 2024 Republican nomination will be on hand Saturday as the University of South Carolina Gamecocks host the Tigers of Clemson University, Haley’s alma mater, in the annual Palmetto Bowl.
Trump’s campaign has not detailed his itinerary. But if his visit is similar to his trip to Ames, Iowa for the Iowa State-Iowa game, he will visit pregame parties, perhaps stop by a fraternity house and then join 80,000-plus fans for the nationally televised matchup.
“We do it bigtime in the South,” said Brandon Beach, a Georgia state senator and top Trump supporter who traveled with him in September for the game in Ames. “President Trump knows he can connect with people, and they are going to connect with him.”
Haley, a Clemson alumna and member of its board of trustees, is an avid Clemson sports fan, but her campaign hasn’t said if she will attend the game. Asked about the coming primary matchup with Trump on her home turf, spokesperson Olivia Perez-Cubas called Haley “the only candidate with momentum” and referenced her previous come-from-behind victories in legislative and gubernatorial contests.
“South Carolinians 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.
Haley was governor of South Carolina until Trump tapped her to be his United Nations ambassador in 2016. Trump continues to hold a wide polling lead over Haley and others in the state and nationally.
“In 2016, South Carolina gave us 44 out of 46 counties – that’s not so bad,” Trump said at a state GOP dinner in August. “I can’t wait to win all 46. We want to win all 46.”
South Carolina falls fourth in the GOP voting calendar after Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, with the state’s first-in-the-South primary coming up on Feb. 24, 2024. Several Southern states follow on March 5 as part of the Super Tuesday slate that puts more delegates up for grabs than any other day in the primary campaign.
Trump’s South Carolina and Super Tuesday romps in 2016 gave him a delegate lead he would never relinquish.
Haley has answered Trump in recent weeks by emphasizing her roots as she campaigns in Iowa, which opens voting nationally with its Jan. 15 caucuses.
“I’m not going anywhere,” she said recently in Ankeny, predicting a strong showing in the caucuses. “Then I go head-to-head with Trump in my home state of South Carolina. And we take it.”
An appearance at the state’s biggest sporting event of the year will offer Trump friendly crowds.
Flagship public universities, especially in the South, bring together much of a state’s business, civic and political leadership, spanning small towns to cities.
Additionally, major college football games are replete with the kind of pageantry — giant U.S. flags on the field during pregame festivities, military flyovers piloted by alumni of the home team to conclude the national anthem — that Trump seeks out.
“These are American values,” said Beach, noting he saw the same thing in Ames when some fans chanted “USA! USA! USA!” when they saw the former president. “They realize how much Trump loves our country. … They want what he wants: Good energy policy, a secure border, to be safe.”
Trump, who tried to buy an NFL team in the 1980s and ended up part of a failed alternative league, has enjoyed sports cameos over the years. But college football has afforded him his most generous welcomes, including at the 2018 national championship game in Atlanta and the 2019 Alabama-LSU regular season game in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
That Alabama game came just days after Trump was booed by professional baseball fans when he attended a World Series home game of the Washington Nationals.
Barrow reported from Atlanta. Associated Press writer Hannah Fingerhut in Ankeny, Iowa, contributed to this report.