Former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event at the South Carolina Statehouse on January 28, 2023, in Columbia, South Carolina.
CNN  — 

Six months into his 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump made a telling admission.

“I don’t normally do stops like this,” he told the officers at a local police precinct in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, who were there to deliver an endorsement.

The political newcomer had all but abandoned the traditional campaign model that steered his rivals toward crowded diners, Rotary clubhouses and the occasionally combative town hall. Having spent much of his career in the media spotlight, Trump instead preferred headline-grabbing settings – giant arenas with rowdy crowds.

It was striking, then, that Trump chose small-scale settings for his first campaign outings last weekend. Without the novelty that helped catapult him into the White House in 2016 or the presidential jet he used as a campaign prop in 2020, some allies have encouraged Trump to freshen up his image by modifying the way he campaigns, making smaller stops, especially when there are advantageous opportunities for him to do so.

That approach was on display last Saturday, when he appeared in two early voting states, speaking to hundreds – not thousands – of people at a New Hampshire high school auditorium and the South Carolina state house. In New Hampshire, he delivered scripted remarks at the annual state GOP meeting. And in South Carolina, flanked by his newly announced state leadership team, the former president promised to run a campaign that would look to the future after spending much of the previous two years fixated on the past.

But perhaps the most surprising moment of Trump’s campaign debut was his impromptu visit to a South Carolina ice cream and hamburger shop, where he greeted voters, ordered a chocolate-dipped cone, and took selfies with patrons. At one point during the stop, Trump was captured on video bowing his head in reverence as a woman prayed over him – the kind of viral moment that generations of presidential candidates have sought and one that Trump later told aides he was very pleased with, according to people familiar with the matter.

While Trump’s first 2024 campaign swing still featured staples of his previous two campaigns – fawning allies, speeches littered with red-meat policy pronouncements, odd rants about wind turbines, and false claims about undocumented immigrants – the smaller settings were nevertheless welcomed by his aides and allies.

“He is at his best in smaller settings. I know he obviously likes doing rallies but the more events he can do like this weekend, the better. That moment of the lady praying over him, you can’t get that if you’re just flying in and out for a campaign rally,” said one former Trump campaign aide.

Sources close to Trump said his team is planning for more small-scale events, which they believe put the former president directly in front of local party figures whose voices and endorsements can carry weight in early-voting states.

Multiple sources familiar with the matter said Trump’s remarks at the annual New Hampshire GOP meeting fit neatly into that category. The former president was able to schmooze with local GOP officials, while unveiling a major addition to his team in the first-in-the-nation primary state – announcing that outgoing New Hampshire GOP Chairman Stephen Stepanek would join as a senior adviser. Campaign aides said it was a no-brainer for him to attend.

“That was the perfect environment and perfect venue. He got to lay out what he wants to do and emphasize who he is bringing on to the team. Everyone thought it was a good idea,” said Steven Cheung, a spokesman for Trump’s 2024 campaign.

Trump allies felt the same about his appearance in South Carolina, where the grandeur of the state capitol and the presence of Republican Gov. Henry McMaster compensated for the otherwise small crowd.

“He didn’t do these types of events in 2020 and I think showing up to a state party meeting or state capitol and touching gloves with local leaders and legislators – it’s a totally different way to get your message across and allows you to have more spontaneous moments,” said the former Trump campaign aide.

Still, aides recognize there are also benefits to his marquee rallies.

“Eventually, there will be rallies,” said Cheung. “He’s going to continue the momentum that was built up from Saturday.”

Jim Yates, a longtime Trump supporter from South Carolina, said he’d like to see Trump hold a mix of smaller events and big rallies. Yates, 76, attended Trump’s South Carolina campaign event, where a few hundred supporters crowded beneath the state house rotunda to listen to him speak.

“You’ve got to reach out to everybody and have it at various locations and attract different groups,” Yates said.

One source close to the Trump campaign said it’s likely they will fill his schedule with both formats in the coming months, though this person acknowledged that Trump may abandon the smaller events if any of his potential rivals begin hosting their own mega rallies or campaign events. The former president himself has insisted to aides that they continue to plan large rallies in Trump-friendly states to showcase his ability to draw a crowd. The former president’s last mega rally occurred during the 2022 midterm cycle.

“Rallies can get repetitive; they all bleed together. You don’t want anyone to constantly be in the same setting because you get the same thing over and over again,” said the person close to the Trump campaign.

Of course, smaller settings and scripted speeches can also work against the former president if he fails to bring the same electricity and candor that attendees of his signature campaign rallies wait hours in line to witness.

“He’s going to have to work hard to win over some New Hampshire Republicans,” said one Granite State Republican operative, noting that while Trump maintains a supportive base in the state, not all of his past supporters are committed to backing him again in 2024.

‘This campaign will be about the future’

Trump’s first weekend campaign swing was also the first major test of his messaging since launching his 2024 campaign, following two years of advice from allies and advisers to stop exhaustively relitigating the 2020 election and instead develop a message that moves his campaign forward and places him at the front of the GOP primary field, which is widely expected to expand in the coming months.

“This campaign will be about the future,” Trump promised in South Carolina. “This campaign will be about issues. Joe Biden has put America on the fast track to ruin and destruction and we will ensure that he does not receive four more years.”

To supplement the forward-driven message he delivered on Saturday, the Trump campaign has spent weeks releasing policy videos that give GOP primary voters a glimpse of what he would aim to accomplish with a second term. The videos, shared across social media, have gained popularity among Trump allies who have long encouraged him to build a better case for why he needs a second term. In them, he has vowed to rein in Big Tech, give parents more control over what their children are taught and by whom, and sign an executive order barring government officials from censoring speech. On Tuesday, Trump vowed to “combat” certain medical treatments for transgender youth in a policy video, his latest foray into the same culture war battles that have enabled the rise of some of his potential rivals, including Republican Govs. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Glenn Youngkin of Virginia.

“When I’m president, we will put parents back in charge and give them the final say. If any principal is not getting the job done, the parents should be able to vote to fire them and select someone who will,” Trump said in a policy video released days before he hit the campaign trail, later repeating the promise in New Hampshire and South Carolina.

But several of Trump’s allies fear he’s still too entrenched in the past and have continued privately voicing concerns about the viability of his third run, including as his own assurances about focusing on the future remain a big question inside even his own inner circle.

The former president has often pushed back on that advice, arguing that his message is strong enough as it is, and one source close to him said his proclivity for focusing on the 2020 election will be tough to break because he still regularly hears from members of his base who believe so-called election integrity is an important talking point as he seeks reelection. Another adviser said that despite the defeat of several Trump-backed midterm candidates who denied the legitimacy of the 2020 election, Trump has said he does not believe their losses were tied to their election lies.

“He was right about it, talking about it strongly. And I think, yeah, it’s fine to talk about somewhat but now it’s time to move on,” said Yates, the South Carolina-based Trump supporter.

Campaign operations

Nearly three months into his 2024 campaign, Trump has continued operating with a much leaner operation than in his last two races, with about 40 members of his team in place across his campaign’s Palm Beach, Florida, office and early voting states, according to a person familiar with the matter.

While Stepanek will oversee his New Hampshire team over the next several months, Trump has also tapped Iowa operatives Eric Brandstad and Alex Latcham ahead of the caucuses there, which he lost in 2016. However, the two operatives are not solely focused on Iowa and have not yet started to build out a ground operation, said a source familiar with the matter.

While Trump was joined by a handful of aides on his first campaign jaunt, including his three most senior advisers – Brian Jack, Susie Wiles, and Chris LaCivita – he has still struggled to recruit some players who worked on his previous campaigns or in his administration but are hesitant to leave their private sector jobs to return to his orbit. At least three people who have been offered positions with his campaign have turned them down, suggesting they may join at a later date, a source familiar with the matter told CNN.

Trump is also bracing for potential rivals to begin entering the field in the coming months, a development that could affect his messaging and campaign strategy. The former president told reporters over the weekend that he had recently heard from former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who also served as US ambassador to the United Nations during his administration. She had called to inform him of her interest in seeking the GOP presidential nomination.

“Go by your heart if you want to run,” Trump claimed he told her, while noting that Haley previously said she wouldn’t challenge her former boss in the 2024 primary.

It is DeSantis, however, who has drawn the most attention and criticism from Trump and his aides. Despite DeSantis’ growing popularity among Republicans, he has yet to be fully vetted on a national stage – something the Trump team is eager to see play out if the Florida governor mounts a presidential campaign later this year, as is widely expected. Unlike DeSantis, who has kept a tight inner circle, Trump’s campaign is made up in part of several former aides and advisers to the Florida governor, who may be able to provide insight into the elusive Republican if and when he challenges their current boss.

Wiles, Jason Miller, who serves as both an informal Trump campaign adviser and CEO of right-wing social media platform Gettr, and Justin Caporale, a senior Trump campaign aide, all previously worked for DeSantis and have knowledge of how he has operated in the past.