Trump and DeSantis begin eyeing Super Tuesday states as they prepare for 2024 long game

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FILE - People wait to vote on Super Tuesday in the gymnasium at Cleveland Park Community Center, Tuesday, March 3, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. While most GOP presidential candidates are focused only on early states like Iowa and New Hampshire, Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis also are looking ahead to Super Tuesday. March 5, 2024 is when the largest number of of delegates are up for grabs of any single day in the primary cycle. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

As the Republican presidential primary intensifies this summer, most White House hopefuls are devoting their time to events in Iowa and New Hampshire, the states that kick off the nomination process early next year. Not Ron DeSantis or Donald Trump.

The Florida governor will address more than 1,500 faithful Republicans on Saturday at Nashville's Music City Center. A few weeks later, the former president will swing through Alabama to headline the state GOP's biggest event of the summer.

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Trump, the early GOP frontrunner, and DeSantis, who is trailing him for second place, are hardly ignoring voters in the states that jumpstart the Republican contest. Over the past month, they've both held rallies and other major events in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, sometimes even appearing in the same state on the same day.

But they are doing more than the other GOP candidates to strengthen their position in states like Tennessee and Alabama that will hold elections on so-called Super Tuesday. That's when the largest number of delegates, which candidates win state-by-state, are up for grabs of any single day in the primary cycle.

Only Trump and DeSantis, who have raised tens of millions of dollars to support their campaigns, have the resources to work in any meaningful way beyond the early states. And GOP leaders beyond Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina say it's a smart strategy.

“I know everybody’s focused on Iowa and New Hampshire,” said Scott Golden, chairman of the Tennessee GOP, who noted that early voting in his state begins in mid-February, before South Carolina is scheduled to hold its contest. "But it is worth taking a little time out to come to Tennessee.”

For presidential candidates, Super Tuesday is a circled-in-red date — next year, it's March 5 — that can make or break a campaign.

Coming quickly after contests in early states such as Iowa and New Hampshire, the set of roughly 14 primaries are held across a broad geographic area, from California and Texas to Massachusetts and Maine. The day also is a test of a campaign’s ability to organize supporters, its financial strength and a chance for those candidates who are still standing to run up their delegate total.

In 2016, for example, Trump's Super Tuesday dominance signaled, against conventional political wisdom, that the businessman and reality TV star was likely to be the party's nominee. President Joe Biden similarly romped through Super Tuesday in 2020, quickly forcing most of his remaining rivals to drop out.

This cycle, Trump and DeSantis have been nailing down key endorsements in Super Tuesday states, starting to hire staff and readying supporters to knock on doors.

The early start reflects the candidates' confidence they will be in the running come March, when the field typically has been winnowed down. Public polling shows Trump currently leading comfortably, followed by DeSantis, with other candidates trailing. They include former Vice President Mike Pence, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor.

Of course, targeting Super Tuesday states is no guarantee for winning the nomination. After a late entry in the 2020 Democratic presidential race, billionaire Mike Bloomberg's strategy was to bypass early contests and win in Super Tuesday states. The former New York mayor spent over $500 million but finished well behind Biden in the delegate haul.

Trump and DeSantis haven't entirely had the Super Tuesday states to themselves. Candidates including former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson have traveled in California and elsewhere. Haley is among those who went to Texas to visit its border with Mexico. But their campaigns have been almost solely focused in early states, some on one in particular.

Pence, an evangelical Christian, has primarily targeted Iowa, where a large portion of GOP primary voters are evangelicals. Christie is counting on independent-minded voters in New Hampshire to support his anti-Trump candidacy, while Haley and Scott hope for good showings in their home state of South Carolina, which votes 10 days before Super Tuesday.

Trump and DeSantis have the money to wage a broader campaign. Trump will report raising over $35 million in the second quarter of this year alone, his campaign said, while DeSantis' campaign said he brought in $20 million in just six weeks after announcing his candidacy.

Trump formally entered the race with the huge advantage of having run and won races in these states before, and his campaigning in many of them hasn't stopped since he lost the 2020 election. In 2021, for example, Trump held a “Save America” rally in Alabama that the state GOP said drew some 50,000 people.

“People of Alabama have a special relationship with Donald Trump," said Alabama Republican Party Chairman John Wahl, noting Trump handily won the GOP primary in 2016, when he was battling Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida for the nomination. Trump also won the general election in Alabama easily in 2016 and 2020.

While a small state compared to many other Super Tuesday contests, Wahl said places like Alabama allow candidates to demonstrate support among conservative voters that are “the heartbeat of the Republican Party.”

“It’s states like Alabama that are going to be where (Trump) hopes to make a lot of ground,” he said. “And if other candidates are going to beat him, they have to compete with him in those states.”

DeSantis and Never Back Down, the super PAC supporting him, are trying. The PAC plans to invest $100 million on ground operations targeting the first 18 states — four early states plus Super Tuesday states — including paid staff such as state campaign directors. Door knocking is well underway in the first states and will start in Super Tuesday states this summer, with a goal of having 2,600 people out supporting the Florida governor by Labor Day.

“Nobody else is doing what we’re doing as of this point,” spokeswoman Erin Perrine said.

She described the door knocking as a crucial piece of the PAC's work because when DeSantis' supporters talk to voters about his personal story — a blue-collar upbringing, serving in the military, his legislative accomplishments — they like what they hear.

“They know the name, but they don’t necessarily know the man,” Perrine said. “We’ve seen that where we show people the man that we take away Trump supporters and that they come over to the DeSantis camp.”

One of DeSantis' most prominent endorsements in a Super Tuesday state was from Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, who joined the Florida governor for a rally in Tulsa last month, a move that angered Trump and some of his allies in Oklahoma.

The state party is neutral on the race, said Chairman Nathan Dahm, but he said Oklahoma still seems to lean in the former president's favor. He noted he passes a home while out running that for six or seven years has had “Veterans for Trump” proudly displayed out front.

Still, Dahm said Super Tuesday contests can offer redemption to a candidate that might stumble in an earlier state.

"You can never know what dynamics will change,” he said. “They should have a long-term strategy. Oklahoma is part of that.”

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Associated Press reporter Kim Chandler contributed from Montgomery, Alabama.