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Trump returns to the trail claiming coronavirus victory and playing campaign defense

The president is fighting in areas of previously strong support that his team never expected would be up for grabs this year.
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WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump's ambitious return to the campaign trail this week comes as questions linger on two fronts: about the health of the candidate — and about the health of his campaign.

His string of scheduled swing state rallies is drawing renewed scrutiny of both the details of the president's recovery from the coronavirus and the safety of those attending the events. The push is also notable for what it represents in the campaign's homestretch: investment of valuable presidential and surrogate time in many states his advisers had assumed would be solidly in his column by this stage of the race.

Trump headed to Florida on Monday, kicking off four straight days of rallies, including his sixth visit in two months to North Carolina and a stop in Iowa, which he easily won in 2016 and where he was leading until recently. Meanwhile, his surrogates were scheduled to stump in the traditionally red states of Georgia, Nebraska and Ohio.

While Trump and his campaign are moving forward with the same posture they did before he was taken to the hospital for the virus, which also infected more than two dozen of his aides and associates, his travel schedule indicates a race in which he has fallen even further behind since his diagnosis.

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Trump is fighting to gain ground not only in areas his campaign always believed would be tight until the end, such as Florida and Pennsylvania, but also in areas where aides and advisers had expected him to be in stronger positions at this point, including Ohio and Iowa — where recent polls show him in a virtual tie.

"The fact that the Trump campaign is spending both time and resources in places like Georgia and Iowa should be troubling," said Michael Steele, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee. "It also reflects the growing gap between Trump and Biden in that, in places like Ohio, where they are tied, Trump has been bleeding support among independents and seniors."

Trump has been complaining to aides that he doesn't have enough events on the calendar, and he is expected soon to start holding two or three events a day, said Trump campaign adviser Jason Miller, who said part of the strategy is to use the rallies to demonstrate the president's health, work ethic and desire for the job.

"You'll see President Trump flat-out outworking Joe Biden," Miller said in a call with reporters.

But while the campaign takes the position that the candidate who does the most rallies is likely to claim victory and as Trump itches to get out of the White House, quickly resuming events where social distancing measures aren't enforced risks sending the message to voters that he is putting his own personal interest over public safety.

Despite the outbreak among Trump's staff and allies, the campaign hasn't made any significant changes to its coronavirus safety protocol at rallies. The mayor of Des Moines, Iowa, has said he is worried that Trump's rally there this week could become another "superspreader event," and public health officials in Minnesota said nine people who were at a Trump rally there last month contracted the coronavirus, including two who were taken to hospitals.

Since it resumed rallies in June, the campaign has said it encourages mask-wearing; it makes masks available at its events, which are often held in partly enclosed airport hangars.

But many of those attending previous Trump campaign events have refused to wear masks, and they often crowd together to get as close to the stage as possible.

Still, despite the risks from optics and health standpoints, Trump's campaign has become increasingly dependent on rallies and events by the president and surrogates, such as family members, to generate local media coverage as it cuts back on television advertising.

Image: Supporters of President Donald Trump
Supporters of President Donald Trump arrive for a campaign rally at Orlando Sanford International Airport in Florida on Monday. Many attendees at previous Trump events have refused to wear masks, and they often crowd together to get as close to the stage as possible.Ricardo Arduengo / Reuters

The campaign's aim is to have top-level surrogates in every battleground state every day until the election, said a person familiar with the campaign. Donald Trump Jr., for example, will do 26 events over the next week, including stops in Georgia and in Omaha, Nebraska, where polls have suggested that one of the state's five Electoral College votes could be up for grabs.

The Trump campaign has been slashing its planned ad spending in Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin, where polls indicate Trump is trailing Biden — although Miller said it would be adding more money in Michigan this week. Trump has no ads up in Ohio and Iowa, according to data from the ad tracking company Advertising Analytics. After losing its cash advantage to the Biden campaign in August, Trump's campaign was outspent on television by 3-to-1 in September.

Miller said the campaign is planning an "eight figure" ad buy in the coming days and is airing ads nationally. In some local markets, like Phoenix, where the competitive Senate race is driving up rates, it is less expensive to buy a national ad than a local one, he said. And he said the campaign hasn't been airing ads locally in Iowa and Ohio because it is confident in Trump's standing there — even though it sent the president to Iowa and the vice president to Ohio for events this week.

But it's all a much different late-race tack than the campaign thought it would be taking when the year began.

At the start of the year, Trump campaign officials said they were using their cash and organizational advantage over the Democrats, who were still fighting over a nominee, to solidify support in traditionally Republican states so that in the final stretch they could focus on places that they assumed would be tight to the finish, like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Now, Michigan has been almost entirely absent from Trump's travel schedule, with only one presidential visit since he resumed rallies in June; the campaign has sent surrogates, instead. He has been to Wisconsin just twice, compared to Pennsylvania, where he will make a fifth trip this week.

Trump trails Biden nationally by an average of 10 points and in at least eight states he won in 2016, according to the NBC News poll tracker.

Trump's campaign said it believes pollsters are undercounting the president's voters and are missing an increase in voter registration among Republicans over the past four years.

"We feel very good about the position we are in in the final three weeks here," Miller said. "We think we are spending money smartly and efficiently."