COLUMBIA, S.C. — Minutes into a campaign speech here Saturday, Donald Trump raised his false claims the 2020 election was stolen from him — returning to an issue that many Republicans worry has cost their party crucial support.
“It’s time for a younger person or someone new to have their time,” said Karen Umberger, one of the delegates, in an interview.
As he hit the trail for the first time since launching a third bid for the White House in November, signs of Trump’s newfound vulnerabilities came into focus. The trip effectively ushered in the start of the 2024 Republican presidential primary campaign season, with Trump fighting to keep his place at the top of a potentially crowded field.
Trump has done little in the way of traditional campaigning since announcing, and has struggled to reignite the energy of his previous runs, leading some Republicans to question his commitment to the 2024 race. On Saturday, the ex-president sought a reset in two influential early-primary states where he triumphed in the 2016 primary, the last time there was an open race for the GOP nomination.
The campaign stops — featuring Trump speaking in smaller settings than the large rallies he hosted in past campaigns — underscored the challenges facing Trump, the sole entrant in the Republican race so far. Some in the party have been openly critical and many longtime allies are holding off on endorsements. Even in South Carolina — where people came out specifically to hear from Trump at an announcement of his campaign leadership — some local GOP leaders said they were waiting to see how the 2024 field takes shape before deciding who to support.
His speeches zigged and zagged through old talking points — “the fake news,” his hatred of windmills, his favorable polling. But he and his allies also sought to focus on the policies he enacted as president and vowed to pursue in the future. He leaned into culture war issues on which rivals such as DeSantis have focused heavily, getting some of his biggest cheers with proposals to fight “indoctrination” in schools and appoint principals by election.
There were some clear signs of excitement for Trump’s bid. “We love you Donald!” a woman shouted toward the end of the New Hampshire speech, prompting cheers from the crowd where some had bright red “Make America Great Again” hats. At one point, the ex-president got a standing ovation. And in South Carolina, supporters lined up down the block to see him.
Trump sought to fire up his supporters, at one point pushing back on suggestions that his presidential campaign has been strangely quiet — that “maybe he’s lost that step.” The ex-president insisted he was “more angry now … more committed now than I ever was.” He promised he would do larger-scale rallies “soon.”
Yet many Republicans are looking beyond Trump as public opinion surveys show that DeSantis would be a formidable Trump challenger, with one finding the Florida governor leading Trump in the Granite State while other candidates trail far behind. The party’s disappointing losses in three straight elections also weigh on the minds of Republicans who blame Trump for elevating flawed and untested candidates who embraced his grievances and false claims in the midterms.
Marilyn Huston of Cheshire County, N.H., said DeSantis or former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley would be a better choice than Trump because he is “unpredictable.”
Chris Wood, 65, a resident of Concord, N.H., offered a similar perspective. “Like many Republicans, we want to win 2024, and I think DeSantis gives Republicans a better shot at winning the presidency,” he said.
In 2016, Trump ran as an outsider who took aim at the GOP establishment and pulled off an upset; in 2020, he marched to the nomination as an incumbent. Now he is in a more uncertain position and facing several investigations. The setup of his early campaign stops furthered the contrast to past campaigns marked by huge rallies, as Trump joined Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster (R) and others at a smaller gathering for which allies struggled to enlist wider support.
“What campaign?” said Terry Sullivan, the campaign manager for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s presidential run in 2016, when asked earlier in the week how he thought Trump’s first couple of months were going. He pointed to Trump’s widely criticized dinner with the rapper Ye and Nick Fuentes, both known for their antisemitic views, as his most notable activity since announcing.
But among critics and allies, few are ready to count out Trump, who has a long history of defying expectations.
“People are waking up; people are realizing how their life was two years ago compared to now,” said Nick Blanchard, 33, one of the staunch Trump supporters who showed up in Salem. “I believe he will be our 47th president. ”
Flying between stops, Trump continued his broadsides against DeSantis, telling reporters from CNN and other media organizations that the governor was “trying to rewrite history” on his response to the coronavirus pandemic. DeSantis has touted his opposition to covid-19 shutdowns and disparaged the coronavirus vaccines that Trump’s administration helped speed along. “Florida was closed for a long period of time,” Trump told reporters on Saturday.
A Marquette Law School poll released this week found that nationally, 64 percent of Republican and right-leaning voters favored DeSantis and 36 percent backed Trump when choosing between just the two of them. Trump on Saturday glossed over those surveys, insisting that “I don’t think we have competition this time.”
New Hampshire GOP delegate Bill Bowen said many Republicans he talks with have a clear takeaway from the midterms, where Trump boosted candidates who fell short in the general election in critical races — including swing-state New Hampshire’s Senate contest.
People think “we really need a candidate who can appeal more to the middle,” Bowen said in an interview, adding that “the question is, how do you do that without alienating Trump-ish voters?” To Bowen, the answer is DeSantis.
Ahead of his Saturday swing, Trump released a video laying out how he would fight “the radical left” in education, leaning into an issue where DeSantis in particular has delighted the conservative base by restricting what schools can teach. Trump promised to “cut federal funding for any school or program pushing critical race theory” — an academic framework for understanding racism that has drawn conservative ire nationwide — as well as “gender ideology or other inappropriate racial, sexual or political content onto our children.”
Trump also recently weighed in on Republicans’ debate over entitlement programs, warning the party not to make cuts to Medicare and Social Security as some GOP lawmakers push for major changes as a condition of raising the debt limit later this year. Democrats have attacked Republicans extensively for raising the possibility of cuts, even as many Republican leaders distance themselves from the idea.
In South Carolina, two potential 2024 candidates were conspicuously absent from Trump’s event: Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Haley, the former South Carolina governor, who served as United Nations ambassador under Trump and once said she wouldn’t run if the former president did. People close to Scott and Haley say both are seriously considering presidential runs, one obstacle to Trump’s efforts to lock down support in South Carolina.
Trump announced Saturday that McMaster, the South Carolina governor, would head his leadership team in the state, while outgoing state party chair Stephen Stepanek would become a senior adviser for his campaign in New Hampshire.
Graham has been arguing that people should get behind Trump because he is likely to win the nomination, according to people familiar with the calls who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share private conversations. Some state lawmakers told Trump’s team they could not attend, people familiar with the conversations said.
William Oden, the chairman of the Sumter County GOP, praised Trump extensively but said in an interview that he hadn’t yet decided who he would support in 2024 and that his friend, Scott, would be a “fantastic president.”
“We listen to everybody,” he said.
DeChalus reported from Salem, N.H. Michael Scherer and Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.