(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump focused on a general election rematch with President Joe Biden in a speech to conservative activists, even as South Carolina Republicans cast ballots in a primary contest between the ex-president and Nikki Haley. 

Trump made virtually no mention of his primary opponent in his speech Saturday. Instead, he centered his address largely on Biden, repeatedly characterizing his political rival and successor’s White House tenure as a “nightmare.” Trump and his allies see the primary as effectively over, positioning the him as the party’s presumptive 2024 nominee. 

“If crooked Joe Biden and his thugs win in 2024, the worst is yet to come,” Trump said in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference just outside Washington. “A vote for Trump is your ticket back to freedom. It’s your passport out of tyranny. And it’s your only escape from Joe Biden and his gang’s fast track to hell.”

Trump’s address provided the clearest indication yet of how he plans to use the crisis at the US-Mexico border as a cudgel against Biden, weeks after he forced Republicans to torpedo a long sought-after deal with Democrats because he wanted to utilize the issue in the November election.

“Ruthless gangs will explode even more into the suburbs and when we talk about suburban women, they’re going to love me so much they’re going to say ‘oh, I wish we had that guy back’,” Trump said. 

Biden campaign rapid response director Ammar Moussa called Trump’s speech “weird, self-centered ramblings” and said in a statement that “America already had the opportunity to choose if they wanted another four years of hell with Donald Trump’s chaos, division, and crazy – they said no –  and will again in November.”

CPAC is a conservative jamboree that draws speakers from around the world. On Saturday, Trump recognized Argentine President Javier Milei, who also spoke at the event, saying that he was part of the populist movement that has become synonymous with Trump. 

Trump aide Dan Scavino posted a video on X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter, of Trump and Milei hugging.

Trump spoke midday Saturday before heading to South Carolina as he aims to deliver Haley, the state’s former governor, a devastating blow that could soon push her out of the race and allow him to formally pivot to the November general election. 

Haley has vowed to continue battling Trump at least through Super Tuesday on March 5, even if she loses her home state.

A Jan. 31 Bloomberg News/Morning Consult poll of seven battleground states most likely to decide the election showed Trump leading Biden 48% to 42%. Most surveys show voters trust Trump more than Biden on issues including the border and economy. 

When he was in the White House, Trump used a regulation known as Title 42 during the Covid-19 pandemic to curtail immigration. He also instituted a policy that forced asylum seekers to remain in Mexico while their applications were processed. Trump has made finishing construction of the Southern border wall part of his second term campaign pledge. 

Primary Season

Trump has so far cruised through the primary even as he faces four indictments spanning 91 felony counts. That includes efforts to reverse his 2020 electoral loss to Biden as well as a case that involves his handling of classified documents. 

On Saturday, Trump’s roughly 90-minute speech included retelling stories from his first term in office. That included anecdotes about negotiating with Mexico and attacking ISIS — “isn’t this better than reading off a friggin’ teleprompter?” he asked the crowd to cheers. He also mocked Biden’s mannerisms.

Trump drew standing ovations when he promised the largest deportation of undocumented immigrants in US history and said of Democrats that winning the election “will be their judgment day.” He talked about sealing the US border “when we win.”

Trump’s decisive victories in the initial primary contests have lent his quest for the nomination an air of inevitability. He and his allies have increasingly pushed for Haley to exit the race to fully coalesce the party around his White House comeback bid. 

Within the Trump-friendly confines of CPAC, the former president already appeared to be the nominee. 

Many attendees wore his signature red “Make America Great Again” baseball caps, vendors hawked Trump-themed merchandise and the crowd chanted “we want Trump” at one point.

(Updates with Biden campaign statement in sixth paragraph)

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