DELAWARE, Ohio (WCMH) – Three weeks before Donald Trump was elected president, TV interviewer Charlie Rose asked JD Vance, a venture capitalist and upstart author, what he thought of the billionaire’s campaign.

“I’m a never-Trump guy,” Vance told Rose. “I never liked him.”

But more than five years later as Ohio’s crowded Republican U.S. Senate primary nears its much-anticipated end in just over a week, Vance shared a rally stage with Trump in suburban Columbus as he emphatically endorsed Vance in a race that may be decided by the former president’s blessing.

“It took me a little bit longer to come along to the president,” Vance told the Saturday evening crowd at the Delaware County Fairgrounds.

But for Trump, all is forgiven.

“He’s a guy that said some bad **** about me,” Trump said Saturday, “But you know what? Every one of the others did also. In fact, if I went by that standard, I don’t think I would have ever endorsed anybody in the country.”

A change of heart catches Trump’s eye

Although Vance was a Trump critic at first, he said he warmed up to the former president because of how Trump governed, like being hard on China, cutting taxes, and fighting abortion.

“The president is right, I wasn’t always nice,” Vance said Saturday after Trump called him back on stage, “but the simple fact is, he’s the best president of my lifetime and he revealed the corruption in this country like nobody else.”

Multiple factors could have driven Trump’s thinking to endorse him, says Paul Beck, professor emeritus of political science at Ohio State University, including Vance’s “celebrity status.”

Vance, 37, was born in Middletown, a midsized Rust Belt city north of Cincinnati. He served in the Marines after high school and then studied political science and philosophy at Ohio State. But he soared to celebrity status after publishing his memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy,” which chronicles his upbringing surrounded by poverty and drug addiction, as well as his rise to Yale Law School.

The book was turned into a Netflix film with an A-list cast in 2020.

J.D. Vance, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Ohio, applauds as former President Donald Trump speaks during a rally hosted by the former president at the Delaware County Fairgrounds on April 23, 2022, in Delaware, Ohio. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

A week before Trump endorsed Vance, he endorsed Mehmet Oz — TV’s “Dr. Oz” — in Pennsylvania’s Republican Senate race, even though Oz has held liberal views on issues in the past. He also endorsed former NFL and college football star Herschel Walker in Georgia’s Senate race.

“We have to pick somebody that can win,” Trump said of Vance on Saturday, “and this guy is tough, he’s smart, he’s a former Marine. … He’s a fearless MAGA fighter, he fights like crazy, and he loves Ohio.”

Trump was impressed that Vance regained his footing in the polls, Axios reported, and thought he performed well in debates and on Fox News appearances. Trump was also “soured,” as Axios put it, by a close altercation between Mike Gibbons and Josh Mandel at a debate last month.

“He wants to back winners,” Beck said. “He wants to back winners who, of course, are supportive of him.”

Vance also had endorsements from Trump-adjacent Republican Congressmembers Matt Gaetz, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Josh Hawley before getting Trump’s.

Vance’s path through the pack

Now with Trump’s backing, the hope is that Vance can rise from a second-tier-polling candidate to the Republican nominee come May 3.

Polling has mostly shown Gibbons, a Cleveland investment banker, and Mandel, a former state treasurer and the 2012 GOP Senate nominee, as first-tier frontrunners. But Trump’s support of Vance could shatter that ceiling.

“I think that the Trump endorsement is going to be the deciding factor in the contest,” Beck said.

Per a February survey commissioned by NBC4, Emerson College pollsters found more than 6 in 10 likely GOP primary voters would be more likely to support the candidate endorsed by Trump.

The race’s latest poll, released Thursday by Vance’s Super PAC, has him up 25% to 18% on second-place Mandel after the Trump endorsement, with Gibbons in third at 13%. That survey of likely voters, however, did not include a margin of error, and campaign-sponsored polls historically tend to over-favor the sponsoring candidate.

Still, the latest independent poll, which the Trafalgar Group conducted before Trump endorsed Vance, shows him in striking position at second place with 23% of likely voters, behind Mandel at 28%.

Trump supporters Linda and Bill Shepard of Waldo were undecided before Trump endorsed Vance but are now “leaning that way,” Linda said before Trump’s Saturday rally.

Undecided Trump supporter David Mulligan of Delaware said he disagrees with Vance’s “isolationist bent” on U.S. involvement in Ukraine, but he acknowledged Trump’s blessing gives Vance momentum as some voters will quickly switch to him and his campaign will be more attractive to donors.

Tech billionaire investor Peter Thiel, for example, gave Vance $3.5 million after the Trump endorsement.

“Between the Trump endorsement and saying something strong pro-Ukraine, for me personally, would get me over the line with him,” Mulligan said.

A JD Vance campaign sign is planted outside the Delaware County Fairgrounds in Delaware, Ohio, as a crowd stands in line for Donald Trump rally on April 23, 2022. (Ben Orner/NBC4)

Most candidates in the GOP Senate race have sought Trump’s endorsement, and early voting numbers show his pick probably isn’t too late for Vance. According to Ohio Secretary of State data as of April 15, 12,646 Republican primary voters had already cast ballots, the day Trump endorsed. Another 22,795 returned mail-in ballots.

But more than 850,000 Republicans voted in Ohio’s 2018 GOP primary, which would put the 35,441 votes cast before Vance’s endorsement at just 4% of the last midterm.

Vance on the issues

Key policies featured on Vance’s campaign website include increasing domestic manufacturing, raising taxes on companies that send jobs overseas, and breaking up big technology firms. Other mainstream conservative priorities include ending abortion, protecting gun rights, and curbing illegal immigration.

Vance talked Saturday about finishing the border wall Trump started and taking “power away from the corrupt public health bureaucrats and a government that refuses to shut down Big Tech but shut down thousands of Ohio small businesses over the past couple of years.”

“He would vote, I assume, with his fellow Republicans in the Senate,” Beck said, “and there’s very little sign that he would be an oddball in any sense there.”

Vance has broken with the GOP field on some issues, however, chiefly the war in Ukraine. No candidate in the race has been overly hawkish on U.S. involvement in the European country, but Vance has said domestic issues should take priority instead.

“We have to be statesmen about this,” he said in a late March debate. “What is happening is of course a tragedy, but how does it affect the vital national interests of this country?”

“What I would do in this moment,” he added, “is premise, condition further Ukrainian aid (from Congress) on support for our border and support for our problems.”

That position, Beck noted, reminds him of the former president.

“On Ukraine, he in some ways is sounding very much like Trump,” Beck said, “where he is basically saying involvement in Ukraine on the part of the United States is just not worth it and it really shouldn’t be our fight.”