Donald Trump draws cheers, some boos in Haley's backyard at Clemson-South Carolina football game

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Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump gestures with South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster during halftime in an NCAA college football game between the University of South Carolina and Clemson Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

COLUMBIA, S.C.Donald Trump used college football rivalry weekend to bask among his supporters in a state and region that are key to his presidential fortunes, while trying to upstage his Republican opponent Nikki Haley on her home turf at the Clemson-South Carolina football game.

The former president and current front-runner for the 2024 Republican nomination walked into Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia on Saturday night to chants of “We want Trump! We want Trump!” from fans gathered for the annual Palmetto Bowl, the state's biggest sporting event of the year.

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Haley, a Clemson alumna and trustee who was twice elected South Carolina governor, did not attend.

Trump was a guest of Gov. Henry McMaster, Haley's successor. The entourage, which entered through a veritable tunnel of Trump supporters on its way to a private suite, also included South Carolina's senior U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, giving the former president a show of local political force at a game featuring Haley's alma mater.

McMaster ascended to the governor's office in 2017 when Trump elevated Haley to United Nations ambassador. Graham and Haley have mostly been allies over the years. But both men now back Trump, and the former president enjoys a wide polling lead among Republican primary voters. That includes nationally and in early nominating states like South Carolina.

At halftime, Trump came down to the field with McMaster, drawing mostly cheers and a smattering of boos as he walked around, posed for a few photos and waved. ESPN's broadcast on the SEC Network also showed the former president sitting with McMaster during the game.

Hours before kickoff, Trump’s campaign announced that he had been endorsed by “more South Carolina legislators than all opposing candidates combined,” including new backing from six state lawmakers who had previously supported U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, before the South Carolinian ended his presidential bid earlier this month.

Columbia was primed for Trump's visit. Around the stadium Saturday afternoon, more than a half-dozen electronic billboards around the capital city of Columbia boasted a message noting Trump's 2020 election loss and his pending legal cases: “You lost. You're guilty. Welcome to Columbia, Donald.”

Some vendors around the venue, meanwhile, hawked Trump-related merchandise, including “Trump 2020” flags, from the previous election cycle. And some fans entering the stadium before Trump's arrival chanted “Let's Go Brandon!” — a derogatory reference to President Joe Biden, who defeated Trump in 2020.

Asked about the coming primary matchup with Trump, Haley spokesperson Olivia Perez-Cubas called her “the only candidate with momentum” and referenced Haley's previous come-from-behind victories.

“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,” she said.

Trump has enjoyed tweaking Haley in her own state before. “In 2016, South Carolina gave us 44 out of 46 counties – that’s not so bad,” he said at a state GOP dinner in August. “I can’t wait to win all 46. We want to win all 46.”

South Carolina falls fourth in the GOP voting calendar after Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, with the state's first-in-the-South primary coming up on Feb. 24, 2024. Several Southern states follow on March 5 as part of the Super Tuesday slate that puts more delegates up for grabs than any other day in the primary campaign.

Trump’s South Carolina and Super Tuesday romps in 2016 gave him a delegate lead he would never relinquish.

Haley has answered Trump in recent weeks by emphasizing her roots as she campaigns in Iowa, which opens voting nationally with its Jan. 15 caucuses.

“I’m not going anywhere,” she said recently in Ankeny, predicting a strong showing in the caucuses. “Then I go head-to-head with Trump in my home state of South Carolina. And we take it.”

Trump, who tried to buy an NFL team in the 1980s and ended up part of a failed alternative league, has enjoyed sports cameos over the years. But college football has afforded him his most generous welcomes. Earlier this fall, he attended the Iowa State-Iowa game in Ames, Iowa, including stopping at a fraternity house before kickoff. And while he was president, he attended the 2018 national championship game in Atlanta and the 2019 Alabama-LSU regular season game in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

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Barrow reported from Atlanta.