US President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign is to be rebooted as he gets back on the road. It comes after a hiatus caused by a nationwide surge in coronavirus cases and after his planned comeback in Oklahoma turned into a debacle.
Mr Trump, trailing Democratic candidate Joe Biden in the polls, is eager to signal that normal life can resume despite a virus that has killed more than 130,000 Americans. He will hold his first in-person fundraiser in a month on Friday in Florida and then a rally on Saturday night in New Hampshire.
The president’s rally in Portsmouth was scheduled after aides spent weeks studying what went wrong in Tulsa three weeks ago. It was billed as a massive, defiant return to the political stage but instead produced a humiliating sea of empty seats and questions about the campaign’s ability to attract people to large events in a pandemic.
Mr Trump’s Friday fundraiser takes him to terrain where Covid-19’s surge threatens his hold on a must-win state and raises questions about Republican aims to hold their nominating convention in Jacksonville next month.
He will also visit US Southern Command in Miami to highlight a reduction in the flow of illegal drugs.
It is unclear how many people will attend the New Hampshire rally, campaign officials acknowledge. Conceding that another sparse crowd would raise questions about the future of Trump’s rallies, the campaign has taken additional steps to make attendees feel safe.
The president wants to go in there and talk about all the accomplishments he’s done in his first term
Unlike the one in Tulsa, which was held indoors where the virus more easily circulates, the rally in Portsmouth will be partially outdoors in an aircraft hangar next to Air Force One.
“All of Donald Trump’s rallies and all of his events are electric,” campaign spokesman Hogan Gidley said.
“The president wants to go in there and talk about all the accomplishments he’s done in his first term and how he’s made people’s lives better.”
While masks were distributed in Tulsa, few rally-goers wore them after weeks of Mr Trump deriding their use. This time, the campaign has been strongly encouraging their use. The venue will be significantly smaller than the cavernous Tulsa arena and aides are deliberately setting lower expectations for crowd size.
The Trump campaign believes it needs to return to the road, both to animate the president, who draws energy from his crowds, and to inject life into a campaign that is facing a strong challenge from Mr Biden.
“The campaign feels he needs to be out there but every time he speaks in front of crowds there is a chance the virus spreads,” said Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University.
“But it’s just as bad if he comes out to an empty crowd, which could be a sign that people are not enthused or they are scared.”
The Trump campaign has also been eager to return to the road to draw a contrast with Mr Biden, who they have painted as being marooned in the basement of his Delaware home.
Mr Biden has been unapologetic about following recommendations from public health officials amid the pandemic. He has travelled by car around Delaware or nearby Pennsylvania for a handful of events.
In contrast to Mr Trump, he wears a mask and observes social distancing guidelines.