USA

New Hampshire rally shows how the Trump campaign is adjusting to 2020 realities

It's made planning more difficult, but the campaign found a location that met all those metrics in New Hampshire, where President Donald Trump will appear on Saturday.

"You have to go to a place where the state guidelines allow you to put on the rally that works," Trump communications director Tim Murtaugh said. "New Hampshire and Gov. (Chris) Sununu have done a great job dealing with the coronavirus and that is part of what allows the President to be there this weekend."

According to Johns Hopkins University, New Hampshire's seven-day moving average of new cases has dropped consistently since early May. In general, the state's numbers have been low. It has just under 6,000 reported cases total, and fewer than 400 people have died of the virus there.

Still, despite the state's low numbers, the threat of the virus remains, enough so that the state's governor has decided he will greet Trump upon arrival, but not participate in the rally itself.

"I'm probably not going to go to the rally itself because frankly that's just a lot of people," Sununu told a group Tuesday night. "I don't go in big crowds anymore for the Covid thing. I just have to be very careful of that."

Still, Sununu defended the idea of Trump holding the rally, pointing to the campaign's plans to ask rally goers to wear masks, dole out hand sanitizer and encourage social distancing. New Hampshire Republicans are embracing the President's visit. Matt Mowers, a former Trump administration official who is a candidate for the GOP nomination in the state's 1st Congressional District, argued the Granite State is prepared to handle an event like this.

"People understand the threat and there are going to be precautions," Mowers said.

He argued that safely reopening the economy is a big part of the GOP message to voters: "New Hampshire wants to get back to work. The largest percentage of workers come from small businesses and you can't keep them closed forever."

New Hampshire could serve as the perfect backdrop to make that argument. While many key swing states, like Florida and Arizona, are seeing an uptick in cases, New Hampshire seemingly has things under control -- and also happens to be a state the Trump team feels they can put back into their win column after losing there narrowly in 2016. Hillary Clinton carried the state and its four electoral votes by less than 3,000 votes, a winning margin of less than a half of a percentage point.

"From the beginning, our plan has been to retain the states that President Trump won in 2016 and then pick off a few states where he was close," Murtaugh said. "We've been high on our chances in New Hampshire from the very beginning."

But Democrats argue that choosing New Hampshire is much more about convenience than strategy. A state with a friendly Republican governor and dropping cases provides the Trump campaign with the chance to put on a much more successful show than they were able to pull off in Tulsa, Oklahoma, last month. The Tulsa rally fell far short of expectations, as the campaign failed to fill the 20,000 seat area where Trump spoke and were forced to cancel a planned outdoor event when the predicted large, overflow crowd failed to materialize.

"It's about him doing whatever he can to turn the page. He's not very good at much, but he does understand the power of the shiny symbol and how some folks' attention can be distracted immediately," said Ray Buckley, chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party. "He needed to find the area that he could put together a show which is what his entire presidency is about and that's why he picked New Hampshire."

This rally will also show the adjustments the campaign plans to make in the wake of the problems they dealt with in Tulsa. The venue will be predominately outside on the tarmac of an airport with an airplane hangar nearby. The event in Tulsa was completely indoors, with seats in very close proximity together and very little opportunity for rally goers to practice social distancing. The set-up also made it impossible to mask the thousands of seats that went empty as the crowd count fell well below expectations.

"We've identified a very vast space that we believe we can adequately accommodate a high amount of people and they will be urging people to social distance at the event and also wear face masks," said Paul Brean, the executive director of Pease Development Authority, which owns and operates the Portsmouth International Airport.

It will also be a much smaller space than the arena the President hoped to pack in Tulsa. Brean said the space the campaign is using can accommodate well over 10,000 people, which is roughly half the size of the arena in Oklahoma.

New Hampshire could be the test case for the campaign's new approach to rallies. If it works, it could be a sign of what is to come for the Trump team as they push to take advantage of what they view as one of the President's strongest assets. His team has, for much of 2020, been denied this weapon in their arsenal. But they firmly believe they have the time to get the practice right.

"We have four months to go before Election Day and plenty of time for plenty of rallies," Murtaugh said. "Hillary Clinton made the mistake of spiking the ball on the two yard line four years ago. Now Joe Biden and Democrats are getting ready to spike the ball on the 40 yard line. Declaring victory now is a big mistake."

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