MANCHESTER, N.H. — Former President Donald Trump on Thursday hammered President Joe Biden over his handling of the economy, giving Biden a rude early welcome to a 2024 campaign that could pit the two men against each other again next year.
Trump, whose fortunes have flipped in a positive direction in the first-in-the-nation GOP primary race here, mostly skipped past Republican rivals and took aim at Biden in a packed ballroom at the DoubleTree hotel.
"When I left office, we handed Joe Biden the fastest economic recovery ever recorded — all with no inflation," Trump said. "He took that booming economy, and he promptly blew it to shreds."
The immediate focus on Biden, who officially entered the race Tuesday, and on the economy — typically voters' top priority in general elections — suggested that Trump will try to convince GOP voters that he is both the likeliest and the toughest draw for Biden.
"They are not looking for a candidate to have a beer with. They are looking for a candidate that will break a beer bottle over the opponent's head," said Matthew Bartlett, a co-founder of the New Hampshire-based public relations firm Darby Field Advisors and a former campaign and congressional aide. "Right now, Trump is that person."
And yet Trump's mere presence also served as a tacit acknowledgment that he still has work to do here.
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A University of New Hampshire poll released last week showed Trump with a 20-point advantage over Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — 42% to 22% — in a hypothetical field of nearly a dozen candidates. That's a reversal from January, when the same survey pegged DeSantis at 42% and Trump at 30%.
The night before Trump's arrival, high-ranking campaign officials Chris LaCivita and Jason Miller huddled with local reporters at a Brazilian steakhouse and emphasized some of the advantages they believe Trump enjoys in the state, according to people who were present.
One of them is the campaign's database of 192,000 New Hampshire residents who have, at some point in the past, shown support for Trump through donations, activism and other means. In 2016, Trump won the state's crowded primary with about 100,000 votes, or 35%.
“That does give us a leg up,” said Stephen Stepanek, a Trump adviser and former chair of the state GOP. “In this state, we’re focused on one thing: building a grassroots organization. ... You get your people motivated and get out to the polls and you win.”
Trump has the remnants of statewide campaign operations across the country, while his challengers have to build here — and elsewhere — from scratch.
On Thursday, hundreds of New Hampshire voters waited in a snaking line that extended several blocks to enter Trump's speech. He spoke in the same ballroom where DeSantis introduced himself to state voters less than two weeks ago. DeSantis, who runs second to Trump in virtually every national poll, isn't expected to announce his decision about whether to run until next month at the earliest.
Trump mocked Biden for announcing his re-election bid in a recorded video and bore in on what he described as a bad Biden economy.
Biden allies hit back quickly.
“Obviously, Donald Trump is lying,” said Ammar Moussa, a Democratic National Committee aide. “He actually presided over the worst jobs record in American history.”
The question for New Hampshire Republicans, and for those across the country, is whether the momentum Trump has built in the early months of this year — in part because the GOP rallied around him after his indictment in New York — is fleeting or sustainable.
Trump's rivals and potential rivals made a "historic miscalculation" by allowing him to campaign without opposition for so long, Bartlett said.
"The conventional wisdom was that he would implode, explode, fade away, or some thought he might even get bored and drop out," he said. "Other campaigns are now playing catch-up and giving themselves a very short runway to try and land the plane."
Trump appears determined to show that he is in touch with voters, both politically and literally. After his speech, he rode in a motorcade to the Red Arrow, an iconic 24-hour Manchester diner. Trump spoke to locals, posed for photos with supporters and even took the traditional political picture with a baby.
He left the diner with a take-out box containing a Trump Tower Burger — an $18.99 stack of two grilled cheese sandwiches serving as buns around a ground beef patty — with fried macaroni and cheese on top, cheese sauce and a side of french fries.