Donald Trump works his base in New Hampshire; they are happy about it – USA TODAY
CLAREMONT, N.H. – Little more than two months before people start voting, Donald Trump and his Republican rivals are increasingly focused on a pivotal constituency: Trump voters.
“We have to slam it on Election Day,” Trump said Saturday during a Veterans Day speech devoted mainly to military policy but which included a copious amount of politics and attacks on President Joe Biden.
As he does in nearly every speech, Trump cited his large lead in the polls, and told supporters they are essential to his hopes of winning the Republican presidential nomination, starting with the Jan. 15 caucuses in Iowa.
Republican rivals say Trump is the wrong choice for the times – and could find himself to be a multi-convicted felon by the time the general election rolls around in a year.
In chilly New Hampshire on Saturday, loyal Trump voters said they are inclined to stick with him because the economy and foreign policy appeared to be better back in his day.
“A lot of people in the middle class realize -wait a second- life was pretty good under Trump, and they really get it,” said Steve Paul, 56, an IT worker who drove two hours from his home in the White Mountains, through a mix of wintery weather, to see Trump.
Paul and others who lined up on the sidewalk outside Stevens High School in Claremont to see Trump cited high energy costs as another key point of pain with the current economy.
“He’s proven himself,” said 72-year-old retiree Bob Stransbery. “You may not like what he says a lot of times and he may say random things but when he says he’s gonna do something he does and he backs it up.”
During his speech, Trump again claimed that Hamas would not have attacked Israel and Ukraine would not have attacked Russia if he were president.
Both are unproveable assertions, but Trump backers believe in his claims about foreign policy.
Stransbery, a U.S. veteran who served 20 years in the Navy and 10 in the Air Force, said other countries are “walking on the United States because nobody would draw a line in the sand and stick to it.”
Trump also has his share of opponents, some of whom showed up in Claremont to protest his appearance.
“The fact that [Trump] has the audacity to set foot in Claremont at this time, when I don’t feel like he deserves to be anywhere but in prison,” said Nancy Braus, 69, who traveled from Gilford, Vermont, to stand among the crowd of some two dozen who carried anti-Trump signs.
Braus, who identifies as progressive and said she has written Sen. Bernie Sanders in for president the past two elections, said Trump “did commit an insurrection” through his supporters’ attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
“He led it; he encouraged it; he instructed all of the people that were there as to how to behave and what to do,” she said.
National Democrats said Trump is an extremist who has disparaged members of the military and failed to follow through on improved services for veterans.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., a veteran, said “the five-deferment draft-dodger” has called “American war heroes who gave their lives for our country ‘suckers’ and ‘losers,'” during a New Hampshire Democratic Party press call Friday.
Duckworth added that Trump’s “dangerous rhetoric on the campaign trail” continues to prove that “if he were elected president, Trump would pursue an extreme agenda.”
Trump spoke in a New Hampshire city that has been ambivalent about him.
During the 2016 election, the then-New York businessman became the first Republican in two decades to win the most votes in the city of Claremont.
In 2020, Biden won the city back for Democrats.
Though not a fan of President Joe Biden, Braus said her vote in the 2024 election will be more about keeping Trump out of office.
“This year it’s about fears, not hope,” she said. “If we vote for Joe Biden, it’s for fears not hopes, because he doesn’t have the vision.”
The most unique aspect of this race: The frontrunner faces up to four criminal trials during the campaign year.
Trump supporters say they are unfazed by all the criminal cases against Trump, and accept his claim that Biden and the Democrats are using the legal system to play politics.
The former president has been charged with conspiracies to overturn the 2020 election in Washington, D.C., and Georgia; improper hush money payments in New York; and mishandling classified documents in Florida.
Neil West, 44, who said he himself has a felony conviction, wouldn’t hold it against the former President if he was convicted in any of the trials.
“I would still vote for him. Absolutely,” West, who stood near the front of the line at Trump’s rally Saturday, said. “Just because you have a felony doesn’t mean you’re bad. I’m not a bad person and I’ve been in a lot of trouble. I took awhile to learn.”
While he understands the trials might deter some people from backing Trump, he believed issues like inflation would ultimately motivate more voters.
“Everywhere everything’s going up but the paychecks stay the same. We just fight to stay afloat,” he said. “When he was in office, everything seemed to be running good.”
While Trump seeks to hold onto his base, other Republican presidential candidates look to chip away past Trump voters who are willing to consider alternatives.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said Trump failed to follow though on many promises, from curbing federal spending to building a complete wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. He also says that Trump is lying about his record.
“Don’t whiz on my leg and tell me that it’s raining, okay?” DeSantis said during a stop in Iowa.
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who has stressed that federal spending continued to go up on Trump’s watch, noted that she does better in polling against Biden than Trump or other Republican candidates.
“Republicans need to start winning,” Haley told told Fox News this week.
Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy is probably Trump’s biggest supporter among the field of challengers.
Of the dozen or so Trump supporters USA TODAY spoke with at the Claremont event, most said that if the former president wasn’t on the ballot, they would vote for entrepreneur Ramaswamy because of his business chops and right-of Trump policy views.
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who has the flu and is off the campaign trail this weekend, has also questioned Trump’s ability to win a general election.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is in Israel this weekend, said this week that voters and everyone else needs to come grips with the prospect that a convicted felon could be nominated for president.
“Our front-runner is out on bail in four different jurisdictions – think about that!” Chris Christie said during a New Hampshire town hall. “And we don’t talk about it?”