By Nathan Layne
(Reuters) -South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem endorsed Donald Trump at a campaign rally on Friday, potentially boosting the former president's lead in the Republican Party's 2024 presidential primary race.
A rising star in the party, Noem has long been mentioned as a possible running mate for Trump should he win the nomination. Her endorsement will likely add fuel to that speculation.
Noem announced her "full and complete endorsement" of Trump at an evening rally in Rapid City, South Dakota, attended by thousands of the former president's supporters.
"He is the leader, the fighter that our country needs," said Noem, who used a joke to nod at speculation that she could be his running mate but did not directly address the issue. "I will do everything I can to help him win and save this country."
With the first nominating contest in Iowa still months away, only a handful of Republican governors have officially endorsed candidates in the crowded primary.
Republican strategist Matt Dole said Noem's move to endorse at this early stage suggests she is increasingly confident that Trump, who is far ahead of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and other rivals in national polls, will win the primary.
"It is a sign that he is solidifying the base behind his candidacy," said Dole, who has advised gubernatorial and congressional candidates. "Governor Noem has a backing in the Republican Party who like her style and have followed her career. I think she brings folks to the table with her."
Noem, 51, raised her national profile during the COVID-19 pandemic when she pushed back on restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of the virus. She has been a staunch Trump supporter, winning her a measure of popularity among his base of voters.
Trump called Noem one of the most successful governors, citing her record resisting pandemic lockdowns and strong economic growth in her state.
"I get endorsements, some don’t mean anything. Hers means a lot," Trump said.
Trump spent most of his nearly two-hour speech railing against the policies of President Joe Biden, a Democrat who defeated him in the 2020 election. The two appear to be on track for a rematch in 2024, with Republican primary voters rallying to Trump's side even as he faces four criminal indictments.
He reiterated plans to dismantle tax incentives for electric vehicles, one of Biden's signature policies, and vowed to implement a mass deportation of immigrants and fire scores of government workers in an effort to "obliterate the Deep State."
Trump painted the economic outlook in hyperbolic terms, underscoring his attempt to capitalize on polls showing that most voters don't approve of Biden's handling of the economy, despite easing inflation and low unemployment.
"The fact is we are probably heading into a Great Depression," Trump said. "The only question is whether or not it will be during the remaining months of the Biden administration. If it's going to happen, let it happen then."
Trump also called on Republicans in Congress to try to use an upcoming government funding deadline of Sept. 30 as leverage to ban the Biden administration from using taxpayer funds for resettling immigrants within the United States.
(Reporting by Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Daniel Wallis and Michael Perry)