A Boeing 757 plane halted on the runway with “Trump” emblazoned on the side in giant gold letters. Loudspeakers boomed Elvis Presley’s Dixie, Village People’s YMCA and Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the USA. Donald Trump descended stairs to rapturous cheers and whistles from thousands of supporters.

Officially, the former US president was rallying at a regional airport to support Republicans candidates in Tuesday’s midterm elections. Unofficially, he was already accelerating down the runway of a 2024 campaign for the White House.

But it was not quite takeoff. “I’m not going to say it right now,” said Trump, bringing a tantalised crowd in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, to their feet. “So, everybody, I promise you, in the very next – very, very, very short period of time, you’re going to be so happy.”

He would like to do it, he added, but wanted to keep the focus on the party’s candidates. Yet minutes earlier, he had given the game away. Two giant screens displayed a series of polls including one for the Republican primary nomination in 2024 that showed Trump at 71% and Florida governor Ron DeSantis at 10%. Trump said casually but pointedly: “Ron DeSanctimonious at 10%.”

The nickname branding exercise was classic Trump and effectively fired the starting gun for a race in which DeSantis is widely considered his most formidable primary challenger. On Sunday Trump will headline a rally in Miami, Florida, to bolster Senator Marco Rubio – but DeSantis, running for re-election as governor, is not invited.

First, on Saturday, Trump was fighting old battles in Pennsylvania, where both his predecessor and successor – Barack Obama and Joe Biden – were also campaigning to tip the balance in a closely contested midterm race that could determine control of the Senate.

Trump’s rally was held at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport, named after a golfing great who learned to fly there. Supporters flew giant “Trump 2024” flags and wore caps and T-shirts with slogans such as “Trump won”, “Lions not sheep” and “I’m a Trump Girl: Get Over It”. There were chants of “USA! USA”, “Let’s go Brandon!” – rightwing code for insulting Biden – and, at mention of Hillary Clinton, “Lock her up!”

Trump gestures with his fist at the Pennsylvania rally
Trump at the Pennsylvania rally. Photograph: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

The 45th president had come to throw his weight behind Mehmet Oz, candidate for the Senate, and Doug Mastriano, running for state governor, each hoping that the former president can help them turn out the base.

Speaking with his “Trump Force One” plane and 10 US flags behind him, and two more giant flags suspended from cranes, Trump spoke of a country in decline under Democratic control. He hit familiar notes about rampant crime, an open border and a war on American energy. He railed against the media as “the enemy of the people”. He lied about “radical left” Democrats cheating to rig elections.

Wearing a red “Make America great again” cap, he argued during a two-hour speech: “If you want to stop the destruction of our country and save the American dream, then this Tuesday you must vote Republican in a giant way … There’s nothing good to say about what’s happening in our country but on Tuesday night I think we’re going to have very good things to say.”

Trump is not on the ballot but somehow he has, once again, made the midterm elections all about him. He insisted on playing kingmaker during the Republican primaries, making risky endorsements of extreme or inexperienced candidates that threatened to turn the votes into a referendum on his political power.

Trump did indeed suffer setbacks, particularly in Georgia, but claimed the hugely symbolic victory of ousting Liz Cheney, the vice-chair of the House of Representatives select committee investigating the January 6 attack on the US Capitol – an exercise he again denounced on Saturday.

Now Trump’s political capital is on the line again in Tuesday’s midterms, with his favoured candidates – such as Herschel Walker in Georgia and JD Vance in Ohio – facing difficult contests that could end in defeat. But with current polls showing apparent momentum for Republicans, he is likely to score at least some victories.

Brendan Buck, a political strategist and former aide to Republican House speakers Paul Ryan and John Boehner, said: “He tends to look out for number one at all points and he’ll take credit for the people who do win no matter how tenuous the reality of his involvement in those races.

“He’s going to be moving forward regardless. He will be hanging over everything that happens in Washington over the next two years; he tends to block out the sun. He’s going to make it much more difficult to govern.”

Crowds at the Latrobe rally
Crowds at the Latrobe rally. Polls appear to show momentum for the GOP in the midterms. Photograph: Mike Segar/Reuters

Polls suggest that Trump’s pick for governor of Pennsylvania will not succeed. Mastriano is a retired army colonel and far-right extremist who introduced a failed resolution after Trump lost Pennsylvania in 2020, falsely claiming that the Republican-controlled legislature had the power to determine which candidate received the state’s electors’ votes. He was seen outside the US Capitol during the January 6 insurrection.

Trailing badly to the state attorney general, Josh Shapiro, Mastriano peppered his rally speech with “culture wars” talking points. “Day one, no more critical race theory in our schools,” he said. “On day one, woke is broke … On day one, no more graphic porn in our schools.”

The Senate race between Oz and John Fetterman, the state’s lieutenant governor, appears tighter. Oz barely won the Republican nomination even after getting Trump’s endorsement. The former president is hoping that the celebrity TV doctor, who counts former first lady Melania Trump as a fan, will help Republicans win over suburban women in the swing state.

Rally attendee Bonnie Morgan, 54, acknowledged that Trump’s backing of Oz had been controversial. “I’m not sure that he’s conservative but I am voting for him because I don’t want Fetterman to be a senator,” she said.

Morgan was wearing a “Women for Trump 2020” cap and, around her shoulders, a flag that said “Trump 2024: Make votes count again”. She said: “He was one of our best presidents, right up there with President Reagan. Things were obviously better under President Trump.”

During a rally that culminated with music resembling a QAnon conspiracy movement song, Trump may have claimed to be holding back on announcing a third consecutive presidential bid so as not to distract from the midterm candidates, but there was little chance of that. While expressing admiration for DeSantis, attendees insisted that – in the event of a matchup – their loyalty was to Trump.

Terrance Berry, 47, said: “President Trump already has the experience with the establishment. He’s brought out and brought forth the truth of what we’ve been dealing with in politics that we never saw before. I appreciate Ron DeSantis and other candidates in the future but I believe that president Trump right now holds the line: he is pretty much the voice and face of the Republican party at this point.

“A lot of people agree. If you ask anybody, you’d probably get more people who say: yeah, I’m still voting for Trump. Even if it was him and DeSantis to run, we’d still vote for Trump. We look to DeSantis maybe in 2028.”

Trump walks down stairs from his plane as he arrives for the rally
Trump makes his entrance at the rally. Photograph: Mike Segar/Reuters

John Sabo, 43, vice-president of an oil and gas company, agreed: “I’d like to see a businessman back in there, someone that’s going to be pro-economy, to be able to get us going in the right direction on that side. I like him because a lot of the far left folks don’t like him and then you get a lot of the Rino-type Republicans or country club Republicans don’t necessarily like him either.

“What I’m about, what a lot of people here about, are the working class people that are out there getting it done, moving the needle for the country. That, to me, is the appeal.”

Koury Barr, 64, a part-time newspaper editor, was also backing a Trump 2024 run. “He did great things for this country,” she said. “My goodness, inflation was under control. Jobs were going crazy. He was just very good for this nation.”

Even so, some analysts believe that a series of defeats for Trump-anointed candidates on Tuesday could yet weaken his grip on the party, forcing it to reconsider whether a 76-year-old, twice-impeached, one-term president – facing multiple federal, state and congressional investigations – really is its best bet for regaining the White House.

Jon Hudak, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution thinktank in Washington, told the Guardian during a virtual press briefing: “In an odd twist, if you see the Senate seats in Wisconsin, in Ohio, in Pennsylvania, in Georgia go to Democrats, that ends up being a very, very, very good day for Ron DeSantis.

“Ron DeSantis can say: ‘Look, the candidates who I have campaigned for have won. I did not inject myself into some of these other races like the former president did.’ And he’s not going to have to say anything to come out of that looking well. Ron DeSantis might want Tim Ryan to win the Ohio Senate race more than Tim Ryan does because it could benefit him so much in 2024.”

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