COLUMBIA, SC — Former President Donald Trump struck out on the campaign trail for the first time this year, effectively kicking off the 2024 GOP nomination race, and providing voters with their first glimpse of the message he plans to lean on to convince Republicans he is still their strongest standard-bearer.
Mr. Trump traveled first to New Hampshire and then here to South Carolina, marking his return to early primary states that played an oversized role in powering his stunning rise in the 2016 race for the White House.
“We are starting right here as a candidate for president,” Mr. Trump said in New Hampshire.
“To save America we need a leader who is prepared to take on the forces laying waste to our country and we need a president who is ready to hit the ground running on Day One and boy am I hitting the ground,” he said.
Pushing back against the idea his campaign is off to a sluggish start and he has been disengaged, Mr. Trump told the GOP faithful, “I am more angry now and more committed now than I ever was.”
Mr. Trump is the sole declared candidate in the Republican race, but that is expected to change over the coming months.
Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, former Vice President Mike Pence and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who served as ambassador to the United Nations in the Trump administration, are eyeing bids.
Mr. Trump on Saturday traded his signature rallies in favor of more traditional campaign events.
In New Hampshire, he delivered the keynote address at the state GOP annual meeting in a high school auditorium.
In South Carolina, Mr. Trump unveiled a state leadership team that included Gov. Henry McMasters and Sen. Lindsey Graham.
“There’s only one president who has ever challenged the entire establishment in Washington and with your vote next year, I will do it again,” Mr. Trump said.
Mr. Graham delivered a full-throated endorsement, saying his record of accomplishment is unmatched.
“There is only one Donald Trump, ” Mr. Graham said. “You can talk about his policies, but you cannot do what he did.”
Mr. Trump’s wins in the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries in 2016 helped give his unconventional bid an air of legitimacy following his second-place finish in Iowa caucuses behind Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
Mr. Trump faces a different set of challenges in 2024.
He must convince voters his political brand will resonate in a general election after his loss in 2020 and after his preferred picks lost pivotal midterm races.
The 76-year-old brings more political and legal baggage into this nomination race.
Republicans have grown tired of his fixation on the 2020 election, and his stolen election claims, and want a more forward-looking, positive, message.
There is another wrinkle.
He could face challenges from popular early state leaders. The list includes — Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, as well as Mrs. Haley and Sen. Tim Scott, also of South Carolina, both of South Carolina.
“I think as when he came into this the first time he had the benefit of being not well known. He had his celebrity gravitas, but in terms of his politics he was the insurgent outsider, and now I think that cuts against him a little bit,” said Chris Maidment, chair of the Hillsborough County Republican Committee. “He is a known quantity. His policies are known, his temperament is known.”
Steve Duprey, a former Republican National Committee member from New Hampshire, said a Sununu bid “would obviously change the landscape dramatically.” Mr. Sununu, he predicted, “would win” New Hampshire’s primary.
Yet, Mr. Duprey said Mr. Trump still is the favorite for the nomination.
“He has a very dedicated hardcore group of supports who will be with him, and it looks like it will be a crowded field and both of those things play to his strengths — just like 2016,” Mr. Duprey said.
Cindy Risher, first vice chair of the South Carolina GOP, said Mr. Trump would still be the person to beat here if Ms. Haley and Mr. Scott dive into the race.
“Yes, I think Trump is the frontrunner,” Ms. Risher said.
Mr. Trump reaped the benefits of a crowded field six years ago, capturing New Hampshire and South Carolina with roughly a third of the vote in both of those primaries.
The first stop on the nomination calendar is still the Iowa caucuses and Republicans there say the race is wide open.
“It will be interesting because in Iowa we are open to everyone at this point — no matter what your status was,” said Gloria Mazza, chair of the Polk County Iowa Republicans.
The University of New Hampshire rolled out a poll ahead of Mr. Trump’s visit Saturday showing him trailing Mr. DeSantis in the Granite State.
Mr. DeSantis was the top pick of 42% of GOP primary voters, followed by Mr. Trump, 30%, former and Mrs. Haley, 8%.
Mr. Sununu, former Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland, and former Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming each pulled in 4% of the vote.
Mr. Duprey warned against reading too much into early polling.
“Right now, you see polls that show Gov. DeSantis as the favorite, but nobody has met Gov DeSantis outside of Florida,” Mr. Duprey said.
“He is obviously very bright and has been very successful as governor, but I think most voters want to like a candidate as a person before they consider voting for them, and I would not say Gov. DeSantis at this point has projected much of a sense of empathy or charm,” he said.
On Saturday, Mr. Trump vowed to defend New Hampshire’s status as home to the first-in-the-nation primary, contrasting it with the push from Mr. Biden and Democrats to push the primary back as part of their plan to reshuffle their nomination calendar.
“I stand before you today and make this solemn pledge when I am back in the White House, I will ensure that New Hampshire remains home to the first-in-the-nation Republican primary for many, many, years to come,” he said. “I think more than anything else, I have proven I keep my promises.”
Mr. Trump said the Biden administration and Democrats have undermined his accomplishments when it came to bolstering border security, strengthening the military, and boosting energy production. Mr. Trump said the liberal view of law enforcement is a mess.
He said parents should vote for school principals and superintendents, and to keep men out of women’s sports. He promised to make the nation energy independent, cut taxes, and curb the nation’s debt. He vouched for term limits for members of Congress, and a lifetime ban on lobbying by former members of Congress.
Democrats are “either stupid or they hate our country,” he said.
• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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