COLUMBIA, S.C. -- 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 "we have huge rallies planned, bigger than ever before."
While Trump has spent the months since he announced his run 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, Fla., 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."
Trump 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 his efforts while serving as president to increase oil production, strike trade deals and crack down on migration at the U.S-Mexico border.
After his South Carolina speech, Trump also talked about the possibility of a run for the presidency by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
"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.
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-size bronze statue of former Vice President John Calhoun.
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 has already drawn controversy, most particularly when he had dinner with white nationalist Nick Fuentes and the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, who had made a series of antisemitic comments.
The former president 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.
Information for this article was contributed by Michelle L. Price of The Associated Press.
Gallery: Trump hits 2024 campaign trail