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 was slated to come 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.
Dismissing the idea that he has been disengaged, Mr. Trump mocked the idea the nomination race is going to be competitive, telling the crowd, “I am more angry now and more committed now than I ever was.”
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, he planned to unveil his state leadership team here at the State House.
“We are going to defeat Joe Biden… and the radical Democrats,” he said. “These are radical left people, and I think in most cases they are Marxists and communists.”
Mr. Trump said, “We are going to turn New Hampshire red on Nov. 5th, 2024.”
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 the Iowa caucuses behind Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
Mr. Trump faces a different set of challenges as he gears up for nomination contests that kick off in about a year.
He must convince voters his brand of politics resonates with a general election audience after his loss in 2020 and after watching some of his preferred picks fall in pivotal midterm races.
The 76-year-old brings more political and legal baggage into this nomination race. More Republicans are tired of his fixation on the 2020 election and eager to move past the backward-looking grievance politics he has popularized
He could be facing off against popular early state leaders – including Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, as well as former Ambassador Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott, both of South Carolina. He appears to be on a crash course with other rising GOP stars – namely Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida.
“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 upend the race in New Hampshire.
“Chris Sununu, if he decides to run, would obviously change the landscape dramatically and would win,” Mr. Duprey said.
Mr. Trump, however, is still the favorite to win the nomination, Mr. Duprey said.
“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.
Indeed, Mr. Trump reaped the benefits of a crowded field, capturing New Hampshire and South Carolina with roughly a third of the vote in both of those primaries.
In Iowa, Republicans say the 2024 caucuses are 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. “Did we ever have a past president that lost an election, wait and come back? I will have to check my history.”
Former President Grover Cleveland, who served from 1885 to 1889 and from 1893 to 1897, is the only president to leave the White House and return for a second term four years later.
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 Mr. Trump, 30%, former and Ms. 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, after likening their liberal policies to bad April Fool’s Day jokes.
Mr. Trump jumped into the presidential race a week after the GOP underperformed expectations in the November election.
Mr. Trump shouldered some of the blame for the disappointing showing after endorsing untested, and unconventional, Republicans running in pivotal Senate races.
That was true in New Hampshire. His endorsed picks lost winnable races for the Senate and the House.
The results raised questions about Mr. Trump’s iron grip on the party and opened the door for his critics to pile on.