© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a rally at Florence Regional Airport in Florence, South Carolina, U.S., March 12, 2022. REUTERS/Randall Hill/File Photo
By Gram Slattery and Ted Hesson
COLUMBIA, South Carolina (Reuters) -Former U.S. President Donald Trump slammed “radical Democrats” and brushed aside concerns about momentum on Saturday in the first two stops of a presidential campaign that has largely idled since he launched it in November.
Speaking to a small crowd at the New Hampshire Republican Party’s annual meeting in Salem, before a planned stop in South Carolina, Trump insisted he was motivated to win as he embarks on his third White House bid.
“I’m more angry now and I’m more committed now than I ever was,” Trump said.
He is due to travel to Columbia, South Carolina, later on Saturday, where he will unveil his leadership team in the state. Trump said in New Hampshire that Stephen Stepanek, the state’s Republican Party chairman, would join his campaign as a senior adviser.
Both New Hampshire and South Carolina are seen as potential kingmakers, as they are among the first to hold their nominating contests. How a candidate performs there often makes or breaks their campaign.
Political observers in the Republican and Democratic parties will be keenly watching to see who shows up to support Trump at the events.
Two Trump allies in South Carolina – Senator Lindsey Graham and Representative Russell Fry – have been calling Republicans and urging them to attend, their offices told Reuters.
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.
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.
In New Hampshire, Republican Governor Chris Sununu has said he is having conversations about a primary bid, and many high-ranking Republicans there – including those who supported Trump previously – say publicly they are looking for an alternative.
In Salem, Trump railed against illegal immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border – a familiar theme – claiming without evidence that other countries were intentionally sending criminals and people with mental illnesses to the United States.
The former president also focused on newer policy proposals, including an education plan released on Thursday that vows to cut federal funding to “any school pushing critical race theory, gender ideology, or any other inappropriate content.”
The plan mirrors a law passed in Florida last year with the backing of Governor Ron DeSantis, a potential Trump rival for the Republican presidential nomination.
In South Carolina, where Trump will appear alongside Graham and Governor Henry McMaster, there will be a number of conspicuous absences.
Among those not attending are the state party chairman, at least three 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.
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.
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.