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Trump takes another stride toward GOP nomination with DeSantis dropout

The former president has picked up several more endorsements, with one senator calling him ‘the presumptive nominee’

Former president Donald Trump greets supporters at the Trump campaign office in Manchester, N.H. on Sunday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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ROCHESTER, N.H. — Former president Donald Trump sped toward clinching the 2024 GOP nomination on Sunday as the endorsement of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signaled further consolidation behind him and a rising sense of resignation among Republicans who hoped to stop him.

Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), head of the Senate GOP’s campaign arm, reacted to DeSantis’s announcement that he was dropping out of the race by calling Trump “the presumptive nominee” and urging Republicans to unite behind him. Trump also picked up the support of Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.), who had previously endorsed DeSantis.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) announced he is ending his presidential campaign on Jan. 21. (Video: The Washington Post)

Trump began his speech here on Sunday by congratulating DeSantis and praising him, his wife and his campaign. “It’s not easy,” Trump said. “He was very gracious and he endorsed me. So I appreciate that, and I also look forward to working with Ron and everybody else to defeat Crooked Joe Biden.”

He went on to attack his sole remaining GOP challenger, former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, as trying to defeat him by mobilizing independents, including those who lean Democratic, to vote in the Republican primary.

“Your vote in this primary is your personal chance to score the ultimate victory over the liars, cheaters and frauds trying to destroy America. Nikki Haley has made an unholy alliance with RINOs and Never Trumpers,” he said, using a pejorative abbreviation for “Republicans in Name Only.”

New Hampshire Republican strategist Mike Dennehy said DeSantis’s departure from the race “makes it virtually impossible for Nikki Haley to keep Trump under 50 percent. And there’s a chance that Trump could hit 60 percent on Tuesday,” he said. “From every indication anecdotally and from polling, DeSantis voters are Trump voters through and through.”

The former president has been topping 50 percent support in the latest polls of the first-in-the-nation primary on Tuesday, and his campaign has been taunting Haley by trotting out surrogates from her home state of South Carolina, whose Republicans are scheduled to vote next month.

Trump’s team invited several prominent South Carolina lawmakers to New Hampshire, including Gov. Henry McMaster and Lt. Gov Pamela Evette, and found the elected officials happy to travel. A senior adviser for the Trump campaign described their goal as ending the primary quickly and showing Haley that winning in the state she used to govern would be difficult for her.

But the endorsement of Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) in South Carolina was meant to particularly sting because Haley and Scott had actually been friends for years, people close to both of them said.

“New Hampshire seems to be where she hung her potential success — after that, it gets a lot more tricky for the governor,” Rep. Russell Fry (R-S.C.), who traveled to New Hampshire on Saturday to boost Trump, said of Haley. “Republicans are united behind the president and seem to be consolidating every day.”

Trump’s top advisers on Sunday released a memo reminding reporters of Haley’s and New Hampshire Republican Gov. Chris Sununu’s bullish predictions about her performance here, arguing that she set herself an impossible task of winning outright. The advisers, Chris LaCivita and Susie Wiles, dared her to drop out and back Trump or else “be absolutely DEMOLISHED and EMBARASSED [sic] in her home state.”

“Overwhelmingly South Carolina would go for Trump by 30 or 40 points against Haley,” said South Carolina state Sen. Josh Kimbrell, who was his state’s first elected official to support DeSantis and immediately endorsed Trump on Sunday when DeSantis dropped out. “A lot of people in the Republican base are frustrated with her and certainly how she’s handled this campaign. Her campaign isn’t going to play well here, and she’s already alienated a lot of her supporters here.”

Rob Godfrey, a longtime aide and former top spokesman to Haley, said Haley was a “clear underdog” in South Carolina because of Trump’s popularity and name recognition in the state. He said she had to come in a “strong second” or win New Hampshire to keep people on board with her campaign.

“While I know she is poised to do well in the state — and I know she has the strength and fight to go on no matter what happens — I also know she could start to hear from significant supporters or donors, who would tell her that protecting her brand and future means not prolonging the race unnecessarily if Trump runs up a significant margin,” he said.

Trump’s team is having a major fundraiser at his club in Florida next month, according to an invitation reviewed by The Washington Post, and has told donors who have not given in the past that they should get on board now, people familiar with the invitation said. One donor who backed DeSantis said he planned to call Trump allies in the coming days to try to get back in Trump’s good graces.

Haley, who was campaigning at Brown’s Lobster Pound in Seabrook, N.H., congratulated DeSantis and wished him well, while welcoming the one-on-one showdown with Trump.

“May the best one win,” she said to cheers.

Democrats also seized on DeSantis’s announcement to portray the contest as a two-person race between Trump and Biden. “There is no path for Nikki Haley to overtake Trump,” said Aaron Jacobs, a spokesman for the write-in campaign for President Biden in Tuesday’s Democratic primary (in which he is not appearing on the ballot because the Democratic National Committee designated South Carolina as the first official primary). “We urge all Granite Staters to join us on Tuesday in writing in Joe Biden, the one candidate who has beaten Trump before and will beat him again.”

The rising sense of Trump’s inevitability contributed to DeSantis’s decision to withdraw, according to a person who spoke with him about the decision. The person said DeSantis determined that many Republicans, as well as right-wing media, started treating his nomination as a foregone conclusion.

One longtime Florida ally of DeSantis said it was a mistake to endorse so quickly. “You have no leverage now,” this person said. But the person said DeSantis also did not want to further invoke the ire of Trump and his team and realized the run had been bruising for his once-strong brand.

Trump and DeSantis had not yet spoken since the endorsement, a person familiar with the matter said. The former president’s team was in a jubilant mood, people close to him said, and he visited volunteers at his Manchester headquarters on Sunday.

After focusing primarily on DeSantis through the Iowa caucuses, Trump’s campaign has turned its fire on Haley here, attacking her for past positions on taxes, Social Security and Medicare benefits, immigration and foreign intervention. At the same time, the super PAC supporting Trump has worked to discourage independent turnout for Haley with mail-pieces portraying her as “MAGA.”

Longtime New Hampshire operatives described DeSantis’s exit from the race as the latest hurdle for Haley that will make it virtually impossible for her to beat Trump in New Hampshire. About two-thirds of DeSantis supporters have consistently said that Trump was their second choice, according to recent polling by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.

“The second choice for DeSantis has been Trump throughout this election, so if anything it’s going to boost Trump’s support,” the center’s director, Andrew Smith, said. While Haley still leads with anti-Trump voters and independents who lean Democratic but who are going to vote in the Republican primary, “there just typically aren’t enough of them.”

But Matt Mowers, a Republican strategist who ran for Congress in New Hampshire, said the numbers that he has seen both in private polling and public polling show DeSantis’s supporters splitting between Trump and Haley. Mowers added that DeSantis wasn’t “taking a lot of market share in New Hampshire to begin with.”

Hours ahead of Trump’s speech, a rowdy crowd of his supporters lined up around the block outside in the 20-degree weather chanting his name at passing cars. The packed audience inside the 750-seat theater here waited eagerly for the candidate, chanting “We believe that Trump will win!”

“My fellow deplorables,” Ryan Terrell, the state party’s vice chair, said in his warm-up speech. “We are back.”

Dylan Wells, Marianne LeVine and Hannah Knowles contributed to this report.

Election 2024

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Who is running? Top contenders for the GOP 2024 nomination include former president Donald Trump and former Trump U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced he was dropping out just ahead of the New Hampshire primary. For the Democrats, President Biden is running for reelection in 2024. Here is The Post’s ranking of the top 10 Republican presidential candidates for 2024 and the top 10 Democratic candidates.

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