By Gram Slattery and Ted Hesson
COLUMBIA, South Carolina (Reuters) -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 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.
In contrast to the raucous rallies in front of thousands of devotees that Trump often holds, Saturday's events were notably muted. In Columbia, Trump spoke to about 200 people in the state's capitol building, 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. Top Republicans in both states that the former president visited - including New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu and former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley - are among those weighing bids of their own.
There were several conspicuous absences in South Carolina, including the state party chairman, five 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.
Trump attempted to allay those concerns, telling the crowd that he expected a wave of additional endorsements from South Carolina's state and federal lawmakers within days.
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.
William Oden, the chair of the Republican Party in Sumter County, South Carolina, said he was a fan of the former president, but was keeping his options open.
"I haven't decided," Oden said. "We're waiting until everybody comes out. And like I'd do in business, I make no choices until we hear all the candidates."
EYES ON DESANTIS?
At both stops on Saturday, Trump echoed some of the themes that animated his 2016 campaign, including sharply criticizing illegal immigration and China.
But he also emphasized social issues, perhaps in response to DeSantis, whose relentless focus on culture wars has helped build his national profile.
In Columbia, the former president railed against transgender rights and the teaching of critical race theory, a once-obscure academic concept that has sparked school board protests and classroom bans in some states.
"We're going to stop the left-wing radical racists and perverts who are trying to indoctrinate our youth, and we're going to get their Marxist hands off our children," Trump said.
"We're going to defeat the cult of gender ideology and reaffirm that God created two genders: men and women. We're not going to allow men to play women's sports."
Trump did not spend much time on his grievances about the 2020 election, though he made allusions to his false claim that the election was stolen from him, calling the election "ridiculous."
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, as the new speaker.
Most brushed off his entreaties, though McCarthy was elected to the position after a bruising battle.
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.
(Reporting by Gram Slattery in Columbia, South Carolina and Ted Hesson in Washington; Editing by Ross Colvin, Daniel Wallis and Cynthia Osterman)