Back from Covid, Trump pins hopes on a hectic comeback tour

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JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — Three weeks until Election Day, President Donald Trump is on a frenzied comeback tour meant to re-energize his base, capture the attention of swing voters and demonstrate that he’s the living embodiment of America’s ability to survive the coronavirus pandemic.

Trump traveled here on Tuesday to Johnstown, a blue-collar town of fewer than 20,000, for the second night of rallying and the start of a marathon of daily campaign events that Trump advisers say will last until Election Day.

Lagging by double digits in some national polls, the incumbent is approaching the race like an underdog and has announced events in Pennsylvania, Florida, North Carolina, Georgia and Iowa — all states he won in 2016. But just like four years ago when Trump came back from the embarrassing fallout from the “Access Hollywood” tape, he has shown no sign that he plans to pivot from his message and is leaning into his freewheeling rallies in an effort to boost his core supporters.

Ahead of Tuesday night’s rally at John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport, the Trump campaign signaled that it hoped the president would stick to campaign talking points, releasing excerpts of his prepared speech that hit on his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, as a “servant of the radical globalists” who will let the “radical left” run the country.

“Joe Biden and the Democrat Socialists will kill your jobs, dismantle your police departments, dissolve your borders, release criminal aliens, raise your taxes, confiscate your guns, destroy your suburbs, and drive God from the public square,” Trump said.

“Biden has made a corrupt bargain — in exchange for his party’s nomination, he has handed control to the Socialists, Marxists and Leftwing Extremists. If he wins, the radical left will be running the country — they are addicted to power, and God help us if they get it.”

With just 21 days to go, aides and allies continue to follow the mantra “Let Trump be Trump.”

Speaking to thousands of supporters gathered here in Johnstown, the president veered off script to deliver red meat lines to his base about the business dealings of Biden’s son Hunter and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., whom he calls “Pocahontas.”

“When you have a good fastball, why would you throw a curve? Just keep doing the same thing,” said Lou Barletta, a Trump supporter and former congressman from Pennsylvania. “His message resonates with people here as it did in 2016 — the forgotten men and women who are left behind. I didn’t think it was possible, but there’s more enthusiasm now than in 2016.”

While Trump narrowly won Pennsylvania in 2016 against Hillary Clinton, he faces an uphill battle in the state against Biden. According to the latest Real Clear Politics polling average, the president is behind by more than 7 points.

Trump’s speech focused in part on his efforts to boost American manufacturing and energy and took aim at Biden’s position on fracking, a critical part of Pennsylvania’s economy.

But just 12 days after his coronavirus diagnosis and hospitalization, the spotlight was once again on the president’s own health and handling of the pandemic, which has killed nearly 215,000 Americans and crippled the economy.

The president walked out onstage without a mask, and made a fist pump to supporters cheering on “four more years.”


But instead of offering an empathetic message to the millions affected by the virus as aides wanted, the president, who is 74, has largely focused on his ability to spring back and restart the economy.

“Under my leadership, we are delivering a safe vaccine and a rapid recovery,” Trump pledged. “If you vote for me, prosperity will surge, normal life will fully resume, and next year will be one of the greatest years in the history of our country.”

Trump claimed Biden would “terminate our recovery, delay the vaccine, prolong the pandemic, and annihilate Pennsylvania’s economy with a draconian unscientific lockdown.”

The president gave a special shout-out to others who had contracted the virus, claiming they were now immune from the disease. A smattering of reports have recounted people contracting the virus weeks or months after recovering from Covid. But Trump dismissed those as a ploy to discredit him.

“Who’s had it?” Trump asked the audience, to slight applause. “Yeah, a lot of people. … Well you’re the people I want to say hello to today because right now, you’re immune. You’re right now immune. Or they say that. You know, they hate to admit because I had it. So, in the old days they said, well, if you have it, you’re immune for life. Once I got it, they give you four months.”

Just as aides are letting Trump loose in the weeks leading up to the election, Republicans have inched their way back from the president and his handling of the pandemic as they try to focus on getting Judge Amy Coney Barrett confirmed to the Supreme Court and hold on to Senate races that are slipping away even in traditional GOP strongholds like Texas.

“There’s a chance he could get back to where he was before the debate, but that’s still a losing place to be,” said Brendan Buck, who was an adviser to then-House Speaker Paul Ryan. “Every theory or case you hear from him coming back starts with the premise of him doing something responsible and disciplined, and we have seen for many years now he is largely incapable of that.”

Buck added that “the whole concept that he was going to take from Covid a new approach and show he understands it better and will be more responsible and show he’s a leader, that’s just not who he is.”

The president is eager to get back out on the campaign trail, aides say, and he has missed hearing the cheering crowds at Make America Great Again rallies after they were canceled because of his diagnosis. His first public event following his bout with the virus was a rally-like gathering on the White House South Lawn on Saturday afternoon, but he spoke for less than 20 minutes, an uncharacteristically short amount of time. On Monday night in Florida, Trump spoke for over an hour.

The Biden and Trump campaigns have both zeroed in on Pennsylvania in recent weeks.

Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor and the president’s personal attorney, visited Philadelphia on Columbus Day for an “Italians for Trump” event and Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law, will visit Boiling Springs on Wednesday.

Biden plans to attend a town hall in Philadelphia on Thursday, which would have been the same night as the second presidential debate, and traveled to Erie over the weekend.

The Trump campaign recently lost a voting lawsuit in Pennsylvania over the state’s poll-watching laws and the campaign’s request to block drop boxes for the state’s vote-by-mail system. Even as the president has continued to rail against widespread voter fraud, U.S. District Judge J. Nicholas Ranjan of the Western District of Pennsylvania wrote in his ruling that the Trump campaign failed to prove that any fraud was “certainly impending.”

Matthew Choi contributed to this report.

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