(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump ran headlong into some of the biggest challenges he'll face in his comeback bid - fading enthusiasm among Republicans looking to move on from the former president and rising rivals for the GOP nomination - as he hit the 2024 campaign trail for the first time.
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Trump on Saturday visited two crucial early-voting states, New Hampshire and South Carolina, and tried to tamp down criticism that his campaign has been lackluster since announcing his third White House bid last November.
"They said, 'He's not campaigning'… 'He's not doing rallies'… 'Maybe he's lost that step,' Trump told the New Hampshire Republican Party annual meeting in Salem. "I'm more angry now and I'm more committed now than I ever was."
Trump also vowed to make his rivals take the campaign to him, saying, "We won't play prevent defense like they do in football" and "we're going to win and we're going to win very big."
But early signs on the trail show a different landscape for Trump. He held smaller events than his signature rallies that drew thousands of ardent supporters, and Republicans who once accepted Trump as the undisputed head of the GOP are increasingly looking to alternatives like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who's widely expected to enter the race.
Trump spoke to a small crowd at the state capitol in South Carolina in an event meant to show his support in the early primary state and even did a bit of retail politicking that he neglected in his last campaign, stopping at an ice cream and fried chicken restaurant in West Columbia.
"He remains a dominant figure, but not in possession of the Republican Party anymore," said Tom Rath, a former New Hampshire attorney general who has advised several presidential campaigns. "If he goes in there thinking he's going to do the same thing he did six years ago, I think he's going to be mistaken."
Polls already show Republican voters eyeing alternatives to Trump, with DeSantis at the front of the pack. A University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll Thursday showed him leading Trump 42% to 30% among likely primary voters in the state. The South Carolina Policy Council found the governor ahead of Trump in a head-to-head matchup by 52% to 33%.
Trump sought to diminish DeSantis during the trip, telling reporters on his plane that the Florida governor would be "very disloyal" by challenging him. Trump also criticized DeSantis for his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, saying the governor had closed the state "for a long period of time," CNN reported.
Other Republicans considering 2024 bids include former South Carolina Governor and Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley; former Vice President Mike Pence; former Secretary of State Michael Pompeo; former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson; and South Carolina Senator Tim Scott.
Rath said he thinks there's a genuine possibility that popular Republican Governor Chris Sununu of New Hampshire also challenges Trump. In an interview on CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday, Sununu panned the former president's appearance in his state.
"He comes to New Hampshire, and, frankly, he gives a very mundane speech. The response we have received is, he read his teleprompter, he stuck to the talking points, he went away," Sununu said. "He's not really bringing that fire, that energy, I think, that a lot of folks saw it in '16. I think, in many ways, it was a little disappointing to some folks."
At the South Carolina event, Trump unveiled his campaign team there, including US Senator Lindsey Graham, Governor Henry McMaster and three US House representatives. But even as he was flanked by members of the state's political establishment, the event was relatively low-key and marked by the absence of Haley and Scott.
Scott's campaign said he had a previously scheduled engagement. Haley, who initially said she would not run if Trump did, has more recently said she is again considering a 2024 bid.
"It's not surprising that South Carolina is quiet around this event and announcement," said Amanda Loveday, a Democratic consultant in Columbia. "Nikki Haley has been very vocal about her thought process about announcing for president, and she is very popular in this state, as is Tim Scott."
"I think people are still wanting to wait and see who else gets in," she said. "Whoever runs, I think it'll be a fractured state in the sense of who's supporting who."
Trump announced his bid in November, a week after the midterms, expecting to enter the race buoyed by a strong Republican showing. But the results, which saw the GOP only take a slim House majority and many of Trump's handpicked candidates going down in defeat, undercut his launch and any sense of inevitability that the nomination was his for the taking.
"There is this feeling that at this point, Donald Trump is not simply going to announce and have the nomination without any resistance," said Robert Oldendick, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of South Carolina, about Trump's standing.
Even among Republicans who view Trump favorably there is a sense that his campaign could falter.
"I think honestly if DeSantis ran, he could potentially remove Trump from the first-place spot," said Carl Broggi, the senior pastor at Community Bible Church in Beaufort, South Carolina.
Trump on Saturday promised supporters his big rallies would be starting "very soon" as he moves to reconnect with voters.
The former president has also been releasing policy videos, much like a traditional candidate, on immigration and other issues, including one calling for new restrictions on Chinese ownership of US infrastructure, farmland and other assets.
"Even if you're the former president, you got to come and earn it person to person," Sununu said on CNN.
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