By MEG KINNARD, HOLLY RAMER and JILL COLVIN
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Former President Donald Trump kicked off his 2024 White House bid with stops Saturday in New Hampshire and South Carolina, events in early-voting states marking the first campaign appearances since announcing his latest run more than two months ago.
“Together we will complete the unfinished business of making America great again,” Trump said at an evening event in Columbia to introduce his South Carolina leadership team.
Trump and his allies hope the events in states with enormous power in selecting the nominee will offer a show of force behind the former president after a sluggish start to his campaign that left many questioning his commitment to running again.
“They said, ‘He’s not doing rallies, he’s not campaigning. Maybe he’s lost that step,’” Trump said at the New Hampshire GOP’s annual meeting in Salem, his first event.
But, he told the audience of party leaders, “I’m more angry now and I’m more committed now than I ever was.” In South Carolina, he further dismissed the speculation by saying that ”we have huge rallies planned, bigger than ever before.”
While Trump has spent the months since he announced largely ensconced in his Florida club and at his nearby golf course, his aides insist they have been busy behind the scenes. His campaign opened a headquarters in Palm Beach, Florida, and has been hiring staff. And in recent weeks, backers have been reaching out to political operatives and elected officials to secure support for Trump at a critical point when other Republicans are preparing their own expected challenges.
In New Hampshire, Trump promoted his campaign agenda, including immigration and crime, and said his policies would be the opposite of President Joe Biden’s. He cited the Democrats’ move to change the election calendar, costing New Hampshire its leadoff primary spot, and accused Biden, a fifth-place finisher in New Hampshire in 2020, of “disgracefully trashing this beloved political tradition.”
“I hope you’re going to remember that during the general election,” Trump told party members. Trump himself twice won the primary, but lost the state each time to Democrats.
Later in South Carolina, Trump said he planned to keep the state’s presidential primary as the “first in the South” and called it “a very important state.”
In his speech, he hurtled from criticism of Biden and Democrats to disparaging comments about transgender people, mockery of people promoting the use of electric stoves and electric cars, and reminiscing about efforts while serving as president to increase oil production, strike trade deals and crack down on migration at the U.S-Mexico border.
While Trump remains the only declared 2024 presidential candidate, potential challengers, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who was Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, are expected to get their campaigns underway in the coming months.
After his South Carolina speech, Trump told The Associated Press in an interview that it would be “a great act of disloyalty” if DeSantis opposed him in the primary and took credit for the governor’s initial election.
“If he runs, that’s fine. I’m way up in the polls,” Trump said. “He’s going to have to do what he wants to do, but he may run. I do think it would be a great act of disloyalty because, you know, I got him in. He had no chance. His political life was over.”
He said he hasn’t spoken to DeSantis in a long time.
Gov. Henry McMaster, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham and several members of the state’s congressional delegation attended Trump’s event at the Statehouse.
Trump’s team has struggled to line up support from South Carolina lawmakers, even some who eagerly backed him before. Some have said that more than a year out from primary balloting is too early to make endorsements or that they are waiting to see who else enters the race. Others have said it is time for the party to move past Trump to a new generation of leadership.
South Carolina House Speaker Murrell Smith was among the legislative leaders awaiting Trump’s arrival, although he said he was there not to make a formal endorsement but to welcome the former president to the state in his role as speaker.
Otherwise, dozens of supporters crammed into the ceremonial lobby between the state House and Senate, competing with reporters and camera crews for space among marble-topped tables and a life-sized bronze statue of former Vice President John C. Calhoun.
Dave Wilson, president of conservative Christian nonprofit Palmetto Family, said some conservative voters may have concerns about Trump’s recent comments that Republicans who opposed abortion without exceptions had cost the party in the November elections.
“It gives pause to some folks within the conservative ranks of the Republican Party as to whether or not we need the process to work itself out,” said Wilson, whose group hosted Pence for a speech in 2021.
But Gerri McDaniel, who worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign, rejected the idea that voters were ready to move on from the former president. “Some of the media keep saying he’s losing his support. No, he’s not,” she said. “It’s only going to be greater than it was before because there are so many people who are angry about what’s happening in Washington.”
The South Carolina event was in some ways off-brand for a onetime reality television star who typically favors big rallies and has tried to cultivate an outsider image. Rallies are expensive, and Trump added new financial challenges when he decided to begin his campaign in November — far earlier than many had urged. That leaves him subject to strict fundraising regulations and bars him from using his well-funded leadership political action committee to pay for such events, which can cost several million dollars.
Trump’s campaign, in its early stages, has already drawn controversy, most particularly when he had dinner with Holocaust-denying white nationalist Nick Fuentes and the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, who had made a series of antisemitic comments. Trump also was widely mocked for selling a series of digital trading cards that pictured him as a superhero, a cowboy and an astronaut, among others.
He is the subject of a series of criminal investigations, including one into the discovery of hundreds of documents with classified markings at his Florida club and whether he obstructed justice by refusing to return them, as well as state and federal examinations of his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election, which he lost to Biden.
Still, early polling shows he’s a favorite to win his party’s nomination.
“The gun is fired, and the campaign season has started,” said Stephen Stepanek, outgoing chair of the New Hampshire Republican Party. Trump announced that Stepanek will serve as senior adviser for his campaign in the state.
Kinnard reported from Columbia, South Carolina, and Colvin from New York. Associated Press writer Michelle L. Price in New York contributed to this report.