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Supporters of former U.S. president and current Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gather ahead of a South Dakota Republican Party rally in Rapid City, S.D., on Sept. 8.ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images

The presidential candidates are tramping through New Hampshire’s hills, buzzing past soybean fields in Iowa, meeting, greeting, begging and beseeching voters, all day and all night, all over the states that are the sites of the first tests of the 2024 campaign.

All of them – except for the two most likely general-election contenders, former president Donald Trump and President Joe Biden.

And though Mr. Trump is expected to be in Iowa Saturday, the big news of the week – in a way the only real news – was the release by an Atlanta superior court judge of the 26-page report from the special grand jury that indicted Mr. Trump and 18 allies for interfering in the 2020 election. The grand jurors’ report released Friday showed they recommended charges against 39 people, including Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, former senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue of Georgia and former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn.

But this moment serves as both a precursor and symbol of what is emerging as the likely character of next year’s election: For the first time in American history, what is happening in judicial chambers may exceed in importance what occurs in campaign appearances, media advertisements and candidate debates.

“If the schedules hold, Donald Trump in courtrooms will be the fabric of the campaign,” Benjamin Ginsberg, a prominent GOP attorney who played a central role in legal action on behalf of Republican candidate George W. Bush in the 2000 overtime election judicial battles, said in an interview. “The trials will be the campaign. Trump will campaign by saying that the fact he’s on trial is the reason people will need to vote for him.”

Mr. Trump already has begun melding his challenge to Mr. Biden and his legal challenges. He has raised money by selling images of his Georgia mug shot. During his last visit to New Hampshire, more than a month ago, he lodged a complaint that was really a plaintive appeal.

“How can my corrupt political opponent, crooked Joe Biden, put me on trial during an election campaign that I’m winning by a lot, but forcing me nevertheless to spend time and money away from the campaign trail in order to fight bogus, made up accusations and charges?” he asked.

Mr. Trump’s effort to return to the presidency likely won’t be the only campaign shaped in significant measure by court action. The likely indictment later this month of Hunter Biden, the President’s son, on charges of gun possession, drug use and tax matters by special counsel David Weiss, will allow Mr. Trump to continue his attacks on the ethics of the Biden family and force Mr. Biden to answer questions about his son’s activities.

Mr. Trump, who has not been in Iowa for nearly a month, returns Saturday to go to the football game between the University of Iowa and Iowa State University – a matchup that Art Cullen, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the Times Pilot newspaper in Storm Lake, Iowa (population 11,256), calls “the major cultural event of the year in Iowa.” Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida also is expected to attend, though the two almost certainly will not meet in a stadium that holds 61,500.

Mr. Cullen minimized the importance of the absence of the former president from what traditionally has been a state that prizes intimate and repeated candidate presence – sometimes with the pledge, made by Mr. DeSantis, of visiting all 99 counties of the state, which sprawls between the Mississippi River on the east and the Missouri River on the west.

The state that was known for decades in the pioneering 19th century as a place that westward settlers passed through on the way to someplace else – stagecoach tracks remained in some parts of the state in living memory – but that in modern times often has been the first stop on the way to presidential nominations and the White House.

Since Jimmy Carter used the Iowa caucuses as the springboard to the presidency in 1976, Iowans have done what New Hampshire residents have done for more than a century: Expect presidential candidates to campaign in the state, answer audience questions, linger after events to chit-chat with attendees, pause in coffee shops, eat the local delicacies and go to the far ends of the states as symbols of their fealty to the public and their willingness to listen to local concerns – one of them being the federal rules affecting ethanol, the automobile fuel produced in 42 refineries in Iowa.

That expectation also persists in New Hampshire, where former Republican senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts who has settled in New Hampshire invites all the candidates to early-evening barbecues. Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina was there this week and former governor Chris Christie of New Jersey is scheduled to attend Monday. “I’m hoping Trump will come,” Mr. Brown said. “There’s no place else that every candidate comes and gets grilled by the people.”

When candidates like Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump campaign as if they were coronated in advance and eschew the retail-style politics that Iowa and New Hampshire voters demand, their rivals often profit by accusing the front-runners of arrogance and arguing that the voters haven’t yet had a chance to speak.

“Then again,” Mr. Cullen said, “being on the ground hasn’t done much good for Asa Hutchinson.” Mr. Hutchinson, a former governor of Arkansas, consistently has rated the support of 1 per cent of likely Iowa caucus goers in the past three polls.

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