By MEG KINNARD
PICKENS, S.C. (AP) — Former President Donald Trump marked a return to the large-scale rallies of his previous presidential campaigns, speaking to a massive crowd gathered in the streets of a small South Carolina city on a blazing summer weekend.
“There’s nowhere else I’d rather be to kick off the Fourth of July weekend than right here on Main Street, with thousands of hardworking South Carolina patriots who believe in God, family and country,” Trump said Saturday to a roaring crowd in downtown Pickens as temperatures climbed into the 90s.
Randal J. Beach, the police chief in the conservative Upstate community of about 3,400 residents, told The Associated Press on Sunday that his estimates of the crowd “were somewhere between 50-55,000.”
The heavily Republican area is a popular one for GOP hopefuls as they aim to attract support for South Carolina’s first-in-the-South presidential primary. In recent months, other candidates including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence and biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy have all held events in the Upstate, as well as the two South Carolinians in the race: former Gov. Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott.
But none drew an audience like Trump, whose appearance effectively shuttered Pickens’ quintessential Southern downtown.
Contrasted with his 2016 and 2020 campaigns, which drew thousands to rallies in states across the country, Trump’s 2024 effort has been markedly different. Earlier this year, instead of addressing voters in a gymnasium or airplane hangar, Trump held his first South Carolina campaign event inside the Statehouse in Columbia, rolling out his state leadership team at an invitation-only gathering in an ornate lobby between the House and Senate chambers.
In other states, the former president has focused his efforts on smaller events, including a series of speeches before state party organizations, as he works to bolster his standing with delegates and local officials.
This was only Trump’s second large rally of the 2024 campaign. In March, he rallied in Waco, Texas, disparaging the prosecutors then investigating him on hush-money charges — on which he was later indicted — and predicting his vindication. A planned outdoor rally in Iowa in May was canceled due to tornado warnings.
The rallies are also expensive to put on, although Trump has continued to bring in millions in fundraising, after both the New York indictment and also federal charges related to his retention of classified documents after leaving the White House. Last month, senior Trump aide Chris LaCivita told the conservative Ruthless podcast that the rallies “are half a million bucks a pop.”
Trump’s campaign has also leaned in on unannounced stops at restaurants — such as at a celebrated Philadelphia cheesesteak restaurant Friday or Versailles, a famous Cuban eatery in Miami — in a bid to showcase his strong appeal among supporters despite the multiple legal challenges.
In a broad GOP field that has continued to grow, Trump’s campaign has pointed to polls showing him with a considerable lead over his rivals, despite a campaign schedule that is far less robust than many of his rivals. He has also given frequent media interviews and appeared at many of the multi-candidate events of the primary season so far, including this past week’s Moms for Liberty gathering in Philadelphia.
Still, the chance to see the former president in person drew thousands from across the Southeast for Saturday’s rally, with attendees beginning to line up the night before, and coming from as far as Florida. Greg Pressley and his wife, Robin, said they drove more than three hours from their home in eastern Tennessee to see the candidate they’ve supported since his first run in 2016.
“Donald Trump’s the best president in history,” Greg Pressley said. “I love his policies. I love the man. I’m here to support him getting back to where he needs to be, to begin with.”
Shelley Fox of Spartanburg, who said she has supported Trump since he entered the 2016 race, said she didn’t feel it necessary to even think about any other candidates for next year’s election.
“I’d write him in,” she said, when asked what she would do if forced to consider another hopeful. “No question — I’d write him in.”
Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP