ORLANDO, FLORIDA (NYTIMES) – US President Donald Trump officially kicked off his campaign for re-election on Tuesday night (June 18), appearing at a “Make America Great Again” rally in front of a huge crowd of raucous supporters almost four years to the day since he announced an improbable run for public office from the golden-hued lobby of Trump Tower.
Giant television screens, food trucks, a band known as the Guzzlers and a celebration of all things Trump turned the 20,000-seat Amway Centre into something between a playoff game and a music festival as Mr Trump strode to the lectern.
Mr Trump’s Tuesday rally is the beginning of what polls suggest will be a difficult 18 months for the president as he seeks another four years.
Already trailing Democrats in many voter surveys and having never cracked 50 per cent approval since taking office, Mr Trump has become one of the most polarising presidents in history.
But his decision to formally start his re-election bid in front of a frenzied crowd of die-hard supporters in Orlando, Florida, suggested that he had no intention of backing away from the dark messaging about immigration and trade that have proved so divisive. Nor would he abandon the personal attacks against his critics and the establishment that have supercharged his most loyal fans.
Mr Trump supporters wearing red caps and “Make America Great Again” T-shirts under flimsy ponchos stood in a downpour on Tuesday afternoon, hours before the main event, waiting to get into the arena. Some had been die-hard supporters since Mr Trump opened his previous bid in 2015. Others were newer converts, who said they have been convinced over the past four years that his policies have improved their lives.
Ms Danielle Cameron, 26, a human resources coordinator from Jacksonville, Florida, said she supported Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont in 2016, and voted for Mr Andrew Gillum in the Florida governor’s race last year.
But after opening her own business, she said, “we recognised how the person we were voting for would have voted to increase the minimum wage in Florida to the point where we couldn’t have afforded to hire our employees.”
Ms Cameron, who is African-American and called herself a “social justice warrior,” said she “started to re-evaluate where we stood politically and if we’re voting in our best interest.”
Mr Mark Sglarata, who works in RV repair in Florida, said he came to support Mr Trump because he lost jobs twice under President Barack Obama. “I haven’t lost my job once” under Mr Trump, he said.
In interviews with a dozen Trump supporters, all dismissed the Mueller investigation as a distraction and expressed great confidence that Mr Trump would ride to re-election.
“I just want to hear what his plans are for the next term,” said Ms Terry Castro, 72, a retired business owner from Florida whose husband served in the military.
That was part of the challenge for the Trump campaign as it planned the event for a candidate who has not articulated a clear vision for what he wants to do with a second term.
The rally mirrored his first announcement on June 16, 2015, which presented to the world the glossy, stiletto-heeled Trump aesthetic and the combative, anti-immigrant views of the candidate at the centre of it.
For a president who wants to be seen as an outsider despite occupying the Oval Office, Tuesday night’s rally presented an opportunity to, at least for one night, turn the clock back to 2015, when Mr Trump began campaigning as a disrupter with little to lose by making bold promises like the construction of a wall along the southwestern border.
But the stakes this time are much higher. And despite the accessories, and a crowd size Mr Trump will be able to brag about, aides privately acknowledged before the speech that the candidate would not offer little new in his message.
Mr Trump, after all, has been running for re-election since he moved into the White House: He filed papers with the Federal Election Commission for his re-election campaign on Jan 20, 2017, the day he was inaugurated.
The rallies he has regularly held in friendly red states have lost their novelty and much of the news media’s interest.
But the rally was expected to help consolidate his base in a must-win state where advisers view his poll numbers as too soft to be comfortable. Campaign officials are also hoping that packing a 20,000-seat stadium, a show of force no Democratic candidate can match, will reassure Mr Trump, who has been rattled by his flagging poll numbers and frustrated by watching from the sidelines as the Democratic primary race heats up.
Without a new message or a clear agenda for a second term, Mr Trump’s advisers are banking on the belief that the same basic playbook – Mr Trump’s preternatural ability to shock and entertain – will again animate his core voters and retain the swing voters who gambled on him in 2016.
It remains to be seen if that strategy will succeed again or whether something new will emerge. “Trump hasn’t yet said how he wants to define the race,” said Mr Jason Miller, a communications adviser on the 2016 campaign. “That’s ultimately going to be up to him.”
Republican strategists said that creating a contrast with progressive candidates like Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Ms Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts is his best bet for re-election, and Mr Trump seems to agree.
During a visit to the battleground state of Iowa last week, the president warned that under the wrong leadership the US could tumble into a state of decline like Venezuela. And he notably name-checked Mr Sanders.
Mr Trump needs “to make suburban voters ask themselves by going to the polls, ‘What am I more annoyed by, Trump’s or the Democrats’ beliefs?'” said Mr Steve Deace, an influential conservative radio host in Iowa.
But that calculus gets muddled in a scenario in which former Vice-President Joe Biden emerges from his party’s nominating fight. Mr Trump has been telling advisers that running against Mr Biden would be a reprise of his 2016 race against Mrs Hillary Clinton, another more centrist candidate with a long track record who was anathema to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.
Optimistic Democrats see danger ahead for the president.
“Trump begins the race in a perilous place,” said Mr David Axelrod, a former top political adviser to Mr Obama. “He is viewed unfavourably in the very Midwestern states that delivered him the White House, and it isn’t obvious where he would pick up states to replace them.”
Mr Trump’s dreary polling numbers come despite a strong economy, which generally portends good things for an incumbent president. But Mr Trump’s advisers have found, alarmingly, that voters do not credit him for it.
And Mr Trump often steps on his list of accomplishments on jobs, tax cuts, deregulation and the appointment of conservative judges.
Still, his campaign aides feel confident of his re-election chances, mostly because of their dim view of the Democratic field. He is backed by a campaign operation that is sleeker and more sophisticated than the ragtag team he ran out of the 26th floor of Trump Tower in 2016.
The campaign has invested millions of dollars in a digital strategy to harvest emails and phone numbers from potential supporters, and to advertise on sites like Facebook and YouTube, where his supporters can be found.
Nonetheless, Mr Trump remains his own biggest asset and liability.
“This is a candidate, a president and personality who just throws out the script and improvises,” said Mr Kevin Madden, a Republican political consultant. “He’ll probably operate within the stagecraft they provide him, but the message discipline you would expect from an incumbent campaign launching a reelection? It’s not going to look anything like that.” There are also some basic principles of Trumpworld that have not changed. The president’s son-in-law, Mr Jared Kushner, is overseeing most of the operation, as he did last time.
Mr Trump primarily trusts only his family members and a small handful of other people, and he is a begrudging recipient of bad news.
That point was on public display over the past six weeks, after The New York Times and other outlets reported that early campaign polling from March showed a bleak landscape for the president.
Mr Trump ordered aides to deny that there were numbers showing him trailing Mr Biden, and to say instead that the full array of numbers was more favourable. Such numbers “don’t exist,” Mr Trump told ABC News last week. Within days, the network obtained those numbers and proved him wrong.
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