MIAMI (AP) – President Donald Trump made it to the critical battleground state of Florida on Friday to raise campaign cash and tend to issues of high interest there for his base supporters. But his efforts to relaunch travel after a hiatus caused by a surge in coronavirus cases hit a new snag as his campaign canceled a weekend rally in New Hampshire, citing a tropical storm threatening the area.
Press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters the Portsmouth rally – slated to be held in an aircraft hangar open on one side – would be delayed by a week or two.
The New Hampshire event had been scheduled after aides spent weeks studying what went wrong at Trump’s last rally – a sparsely attended event in Tulsa three weeks ago. That was meant to be a massive, defiant return to the political stage but instead produced a sea of empty seats and questions about the campaignâ€™s ability to attract people to large events in a pandemic.
â€œWith Tropical Storm Fay heading towards the Great State of New Hampshire this weekend, we are forced to reschedule our Portsmouth, New Hampshire Rally at the Portsmouth International Airport at Pease,â€ Trump tweeted. “Stay safe, we will be there soon!â€
Trump opened his Florida visit at U.S. Southern Command, where he got a briefing and spoke about U.S. counternarcotics operations. He was also scheduled to attend a roundtable in nearby Doral to show support for Venezuelan expatriates seeking the ouster of Nicholas Maduro, and then attend an evening campaign fundraiser in Hillsboro Beach, Florida.
Saturday’s New Hampshire event was to mark Trump’s first political rally after a multiweek pause caused by a nationwide surge in coronavirus cases.
Even before the storm threat emerged, campaign officials had acknowledged that it was unclear how many people would attend the New Hampshire rally. Conceding that another sparse crowd would raise questions about the future of Trumpâ€™s rallies, the campaign had taken additional steps to make attendees feel safe.
Rain was forecast for early Saturday in Portsmouth, and rally-goers often gather hours ahead of the event to get a good view of the president. For the rallyâ€™s scheduled start time Saturday evening, Weather.Com forecast the weather would be partly cloudy with a 15% chance of rain.
There was strong opposition to Trumpâ€™s rally among some prominent New Hampshire Republicans. Judd Gregg, who previously served New Hampshire both as a governor and senator, bluntly called Trumpâ€™s appearance â€œa mistake.â€
â€œNew Hampshire has been extremely aggressive under the governor in containing the virus,â€ Gregg said in an interview with The Associated Press, confirming that he had not planned to attend either. â€œPeople are concerned about folks bringing the problem to us.â€
Trump, trailing in the polls, is eager to signal that normal life can resume despite a rampaging virus that has killed more than 130,000 Americans.
His visit to Florida 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.
Unlike the rally in Tulsa, which was held indoors where the virus more easily circulates, the rally in Portsmouth was to be partially outdoors, held in an airplane hangar open on one side with the crowd spilling out onto the tarmac before Air Force One.
â€œAll of Donald Trumpâ€™s rallies and all of his events are electric,â€ said campaign spokesperson Hogan Gidley. â€œThe president wants to go in there and talk about all the accomplishments heâ€™s done in his first term and how heâ€™s made peopleâ€™s lives better.â€
Moreover, while masks were distributed in Tulsa, few rally-goers wore them after weeks of Trump deriding their use. This time, the campaign has strongly encouraged their use.
The venue was to be significantly smaller than the cavernous Tulsa arena, and aides had deliberately set lower expectations for crowd size. Before the Oklahoma event, which spurred days of protests, campaign manager Brad Parscale boasted that a million ticket requests had been received. The Tulsa fire marshal said 6,000 people attended.
New Hampshire has had a relatively low number of COVID-19 cases, while those in Oklahoma were rising before Trump arrived. Oklahoma health officials said the rally and accompanying protests â€œlikely contributedâ€ to a surge in infections in the city. Several campaign staffers and Secret Service agents tested positive for the virus.
Despite the risks, 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’s facing a strong challenge from Democratic candidate Joe Biden.
â€œThe campaign feels he needs to be out there, but every time he speaks in front of crowds, there is a chance the virus spreads,â€ said Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University. â€œBut itâ€™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.â€
On Friday, Biden pointed to Florida’s rising coronavirus cases, saying, “It is clear that Trumpâ€™s response – ignore, blame others, and distract – has come at the expense of Florida families.â€
The choice to hold the rally in New Hampshire, where the president is trailing significantly, in part reflected the current lack of options, said four campaign officials and Republicans close to the endeavor who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to publicly discuss internal deliberations.
Battleground states with Democratic governors, such as Michigan and Pennsylvania, have indicated they wouldn’t waive health regulations to allow large gatherings, though the campaign will be willing to legally contest that in time, according to the officials. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, had said he wouldn’t attend the rally.
Barrow reported from Atlanta. Associated Press writer Aamer Madhani in Washington and Steve Peoples in London contributed to this report.
Follow Lemire on Twitter at https://twitter.com/@JonLemire and Barrow at https://twitter.com/@BillBarrowAP.