MANCHESTER, N.H. (AP) — Former President Donald Trump turned his attention to the general election on Thursday, using his first campaign appearance since President Joe Biden launched his own reelection bid to boast of his poll numbers and suggest that he has no need to debate his Republican rivals.
Trump’s appearance in New Hampshire marked his first return to an early voting state since his legal troubles increased with an indictment in New York. He spoke on the same day that his former vice president, Mike Pence, testified before a federal grand jury investigating efforts by Trump and his allies to overturn the 2020 election. Meanwhile, writer E. Jean Carroll testified for a second day Thursday in a civil rape case against Trump over an encounter in the 1990s, an allegation he denies.
“We are a nation in serious decline, a nation that has lost its way,” Trump said at a downtown Manchester hotel, a smaller venue than his typical, large-scale rallies. “We are led by a hopeless person, but we will win in 2024 and make America great again. We can do it. It’s not too late.”
In a nod toward his 2016 race, Trump said he’s retiring the “crooked” nickname he used to define Democratic rival Hillary Clinton and will now instead apply it to Biden. He pledged to take back the White House and “settle our unfinished business” in a potential 2024 rematch with the current president.
A spokesperson for the Democratic National Committee, Ammar Moussa, pointed in response to persistent allegations that Trump’s family profited off his presidency.
“Donald Trump may come up with a lot of nicknames for President Biden but we have a better one: winner,” Moussa said.
Trump’s New Hampshire appearance came two days after Biden kicked off his own long-expected reelection campaign, presenting himself as he did in 2020 as a buttress against Trump and his “Make America Great Again” movement. Biden’s campaign launch video included snapshots of Trump and warned of “MAGA extremists” working to erode freedoms including voting rights and abortion rights.
Trump is considered a front-runner for the GOP nomination, though more Republicans are expected to jump into the race soon, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Trump’s campaign this week started airing its first television ad, which assails DeSantis. In the ad, Trump takes credit for DeSantis’ political rise and shows the governor yoking himself to the former president, including clips from a 2018 gubernatorial campaign ad in which he uses some of Trump’s catchphrases like “Build the wall” and “You’re fired.”
Trump, who has mused about skipping primary debates, pointed Thursday to his sizable polling lead and questioned why he should bother participating in the debates. “Why would you do that?” he asked the crowd.
Two weeks ago, Trump appeared with several other announced and potential presidential candidates at the National Rifle Association convention in Indianapolis. Last weekend, he spoke by video to a gathering of evangelicals in Iowa that marked the unofficial start of the state’s 2024 caucus campaign.
“It doesn’t feel good to have Republicans that are so conservative and great fighting each other,” said Kathy Holmes, a 69-year-old retired teacher from Chichester who attended Trump’s event Thursday. Holmes, who said she plans to vote for Trump in the state’s leadoff primary, wore homemade buttons of Trump’s face with fuzzy blond hair glued onto it.
Holmes said she’d like to see DeSantis wait and run for president in 2028 instead.
Maureen Anderson, a 43-year-old from the Boston area who said she follows the QAnon conspiracy theory, said Thursday’s event was the first time she would be seeing Trump in person. The longtime Trump supporter wore a red “MAGA” hat and said she would be supporting Trump in the primary, regardless of his legal troubles.
“I feel like they’ve got nothing on him, and they just keep trying to find some other avenue to get him,” she said of the legal cases. “But they’re not gonna get him.”
Trump stopped at a downtown diner after his event, where he posed for photographs and signed autographs. Someone in the crowd tried to draw Trump’s attention to one woman, shouting, “She’s a J-6er,” referring to people who were at the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.
“Where is she?” Trump asked, turning his head and beckoning her to come through the packed crowd. He leaned in between members of his security detail to say, “You just hang in,” and something else inaudible and then repeated, “You just hang in.”
The woman passed up a backpack from the crowd to have him sign, shouting, “I took it with me Jan. 6.” He signed it.
New Hampshire is a political swing state, though voters in the state rejected Trump in the 2016 and 2020 general elections. It was, however, the first state Trump won in the 2016 Republican presidential primary contest, propelling him into GOP dominance that he maintains to this day.
The former president made one other visit to New Hampshire earlier this year, stopping in Salem as part of his first appearances on his latest White House campaign.
Cooper reported from Phoenix.