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Donald Trump attends football game in Nikki Haley’s home state, receiving cheers and boos


COLUMBIA, S.C. — Former President Donald Trump again turned a college football stadium into a campaign venue, this time in the backyard of Republican primary rival Nikki Haley.

The results included many cheers, some boos, and implicit contrasts with his Republican opponents trailing him in polls across the country.

“At the Palmetto Bowl in the Great State of South Carolina!” Trump said on Truth Social during the annual football grudge match between the University of South Carolina and Clemson University, the premier sports-and-social event in the state that Haley once governed. (Clemson won 16-7.)

South Carolina also hosts a key Republican presidential primary on Feb. 24, and Trump enjoys huge leads in early polls over Haley and other GOP rivals.

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, Haley’s successor, has endorsed Trump, and he hosted the former president on his visit to Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia.

The crowd cheered Trump heartily as he and McMaster walked onto the field at halftime, though some boos and catcalls could be heard – including from members of the Clemson marching band who were waiting to perform their own halftime show.

Earlier, some Trump opponents voiced their displeasure when his motorcade arrived at the stadium. But he received a rapturous response from people who massed against metal barriers to get a picture or handshake from Trump as he walked to a box in the stadium.

For his part, Trump tossed boxes of popcorn as some of his supporters chanted slogans such as “We Want Trump!” and “U-S-A! U-S-A!”

‘The night belongs to Trump’

During the first half of the game, Trump waved and gave the thumbs-up to members of the crowd of more than 80,000 football fans.

In addition to McMaster, Trump sat with a group of prominent South Carolina lawmakers who included Lt. Gov. Pamela Evette, Republican U.S. Reps. Joe Wilson and Russell Fry, and Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham.

“The night belongs to Trump,” Graham said just before Trump’s halftime appearance on the field.

After that, Trump and his motorcade departed the stadium.

‘It ain’t gonna hurt him’

Earlier in the day, tailgaters scattered around the stadium seemed more interested in the football than the politics.

For the most part, RVs, trucks and cars carried the flags of the South Carolina Gamecocks, Clemson Tigers, or the United States of America − but there were a few Trump banners as well, including one hoisted by Shonda Carlton, 55, a UPS dispatcher from Lancaster, S.C.

Hosting one of hundreds of pre-game parties in a fairgrounds parking lot, Carlton said she and her friends like Haley – “she’s from South Carolina” – but they are still “Trump all the way.”

Stacy Altman, 48, a human resources manager from Lancaster, said Trump’s football visit can only help his chances.

“It ain’t gonna hurt him,” she said.

Can Haley ‘beat the odds’?

Haley, a Clemson graduate who has often publicly rooted for the Tigers, was not seen at the Clemson-Carolina game.

Her campaign sent out a statement citing polls that show the twice-elected governor the “the best challenger” to both Trump in GOP primaries and President Joe Biden in a general election. Haley also worked as United Nations ambassador during the Trump administration.

“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,” said Haley spokesperson Olivia Perez-Cubas.

‘A captive audience’

Trump has used game days as campaign stops before.

In September, Trump mingled with tailgaters and stopped by a fraternity house before the Iowa-Iowa State football rivalry game in Ames, Iowa.

Trump soaked up cheers at the game, but also heard some boos and catcalls.

Iowa starts the Republican nomination process with caucuses on Jan. 15. The New Hampshire primary follows on Feb. 23.

There seems to be a natural affinity between politicians and football games, especially in South Carolina and other southern states.

In this case, “there’s a captive crowd in an early primary state in South, where he’s typically done well,” said Rob Godfrey, a South Carolina Republican and former Haley deputy chief of staff who is staying neutral in the presidential race.

A sports-political tradition

Trump isn’t the first president or presidential candidate to use a football stadium as a backdrop, not even in South Carolina.

Less than two weeks before the 1976 election, President Gerald Ford traveled to Columbia to watch Notre Dame edge South Carolina 13-6. Ford, who also glad-handed at the adjacent State Fair that day, went on to the presidential election to Jimmy Carter.

During his presidency, Trump saw Louisiana State University defeat the University Alabama in a 2019 battle of top-rated teams in Tuscaloosa, Ala., (the site of a Republican presidential debate next month that Trump will likely boycott).

At the start of the 2020 campaign, Trump flew to New Orleans for the college football championship game in which LSU defeated Clemson.

Saturday’s game doesn’t have such high stakes.

Clemson, which won college football championship games in 2017 and 2019 and later visited Trump’s White House, is having a subpar year (for them) at 7-4.

South Carolina, which has often struggled against its hated in-state rival, enters this year’s game at 5-6. The Gamecocks did beat Clemson last year, at Clemson, by a score of 31-30.

Trump, Haley, and the SC primary

As the 2024 election season approaches, South Carolina will likely play a big role.

The Palmetto State primary, the first in the South, follows delegate contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada.

The winner of the Republican primary often goes on to win the party nomination, as Trump did in 2016. He won South Carolina with 32.5% of the vote, about ten percentage points ahead of Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.

This time around, Trump enjoys a big lead in South Carolina, though Haley is a native daughter and has many supporters in the state.

A Winthrop University poll last week put Trump in first at 52%, followed by Haley at 17%. In third was Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis with 12%.

That poll also had South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott at 10%, but he withdrew from the race. Haley is looking to pick up Scott’s support, and also hopes that good showings in Iowa and New Hampshire will help her block Trump in South Carolina.

Trump’s appearance at the South Carolina-Clemson game indicates he is aware of Haley’s potential in the State, said Scott Huffmon, a political science professor at Winthrop University.

“I think it’s a sign that he’s taking South Carolina seriously,” said Huffmon, director of The Winthrop Poll.

‘A memorable month’ upcoming

Godfrey, who is neutral in the primary, said Haley retains strong pockets of support in the state.

While Trump leads right now, he said, results in early states like Iowa and New Hampshire will likely influence what happens in South Carolina.

“Nobody’s cast any votes yet,” Godfrey said.

He added: “I don’t have any doubt that we’re in for a memorable month between New Hampshire and South Carolina.”

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