COLUMBIA, South Carolina: Former U.S. President Donald Trump hit the campaign trail on Saturday for the first time since announcing his bid to reclaim the White House in 2024, visiting two early-voting states and brushing aside criticism that his run was off to a slow start.
"I'm more angry now, and I'm more committed now, than I ever was," Trump, a Republican, told a small crowd at the New Hampshire Republican Party's annual meeting in Salem, before heading to Columbia, South Carolina, for an appearance alongside his leadership team in the state.
New Hampshire and South Carolina are among the first four states to hold presidential nominating contests, giving them outsized influence as candidates jockey for position.
In contrast to the raucous rallies in front of thousands of devotees that Trump often holds, Saturday's events were comparatively muted. In Columbia, Trump spoke to about 200 attendees, with Governor Henry McMaster and U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina flanking him.
Once the undisputed center of gravity in the Republican Party, an increasing number of elected officials have expressed concerns about Trump's ability to beat Democratic President Joe Biden, if he decides to run again as is widely expected.
Numerous Republicans are considering whether to launch their own White House bids, including Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, widely seen as the biggest threat to Trump.
Several top Republicans in both states that Trump visited on Saturday - including New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu and former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley - are weighing presidential campaigns. Many high-ranking Republicans in New Hampshire, where Trump's 2016 victory confirmed his status as a top contender, say they are looking for an alternative.
There were several conspicuous absences in South Carolina, including the state party chairman, several Republican U.S. representatives from the state and South Carolina U.S. Senator Tim Scott, who has himself been floated as a potential Republican presidential candidate. Scott and others have cited scheduling conflicts.
Several Republican state lawmakers decided against attending after failing to gain assurances from Trump's team that doing so would not be considered an endorsement, according to a person with knowledge of the planning.
Rob Godfrey, a Columbia-based political strategist, said many Republicans are holding off on a Trump endorsement because of the wide range of possible candidates who could run for the party's nomination.
"I think there are a fair number of people that are keeping their powder dry because there's such a deep bench for Republicans this year," he said.
At both stops on Saturday, Trump echoed some of the themes that animated his first campaign, including railing against illegal immigration and China.
But he also emphasized social issues such as transgender rights and school curricula on race, perhaps in response to DeSantis, whose relentless focus on culture wars has helped build his national profile.
To be sure, Trump retains a significant base of support, particularly among the grassroots. While he loses in some head-to-head polls against DeSantis, he wins by significant margins when poll respondents are presented with a broader field of options.
Trump did not spent much time echoing his familiar grievances over the 2020 election, though he made allusions to his false claim that the election was stolen from him.
Since launching his campaign in November, Trump has maintained a relatively low profile. He called multiple conservative Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives in early January to persuade them to vote for Kevin McCarthy, an ally, for the new Speaker.
Most brushed off his entreaties, though McCarthy was elected to the position after a bruising battle.