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It's all about Trump now

Analysis: In the midst of his barnstorming tour, and in the wake of political violence, the president is effectively the only candidate who matters in the midterms.
The big decision for most voters next week: Whether they want to enhance the president's power — or check it.Jeff Roberson / AP

WASHINGTON — The midterm elections were always going to be, to some extent, a referendum on President Donald Trump.

Now they're all about the president.

In the closing days of the campaign, the midterms have become a combustible crucible for political combat — spurred on by Trump's drumbeat of apocalyptic rhetoric about his political adversaries and the media, unrelieved Democratic anger about his policies and manner, and the apparently politically driven mail-bombings and synagogue murders of the last week.

Trump's name isn't on the ballot, but the combination of strategy and events has all but knocked the actual candidates from both national and local political conversations.

The big decision for most voters next week: Whether they want to enhance the president's power — or check it.

For months, Trump allies have urged him to make the elections about himself to ensure that voters who came out to the polls to elect him show up to cast ballots for Republican House, Senate and gubernatorial candidates.

After Democrats over-performed in a string of special elections for state legislative seats, the U.S. House and a Senate race in Alabama, Republicans worried that his base would not be inspired to vote for GOP candidates not named Trump. They needed him to make the case for those candidates — especially in swing districts and states where base turnout could make the difference between a win and a loss, and collectively determine which party would control either or both chambers of Congress.

"The president is making a concerted push to make sure that Republican voters realize that he is on the ballot," said Republican political consultant Michael Caputo, who worked on Trump's 2016 campaign and is helping Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., in his re-election bid in upstate New York. "Every waking moment in America is all about Trump now, and the elections are a particular focus."

Republicans say the president's attention to the contentious hearings on Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and a caravan of Honduran migrants trying to make their way to the U.S. border — and the specter that he might be impeached before that — have helped focus his most ardent supporters on voting in the midterm elections.

They credit that focus with an improving outlook for Senate Republicans as they try to maintain, or possibly expand, their 51-49 majority, as well as a lowering of the ceiling of expectations for Democratic pick-ups in the House. The website currently projects an 80 percent chance that Democrats net between 20 and 61 seats, with a 10 percent chance each for them to over- or under-perform that range.

There's little question that Democrats — including many educated suburban white women who were longtime Republican voters before the 2016 election — are motivated to send a message of rejection to Trump.

One former Democratic state senator in Missouri who canvassed in the St. Louis suburbs for Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., over the weekend told NBC News that husbands mostly stayed in the shadows while their wives were quick to come to the door to talk about their frustrations with the president.

"I hit about 350 doors, and the Trump rationale was — I heard it 10 times more than anything else," he said. "People could barely talk they were so angry about Trump ... Yes, he's dominating the election."

Trump's re-election campaign released an ad Monday that does not feature him, suggesting that they believe there's some risk in swing voters in making the election about him personally.

"The president's not on the ballot," Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale said on "CBS This Morning" Monday. "This is about his agenda." Parscale added that the ad is targeted to a "huge batch of independent voters" who don't watch the news around the clock.

But at a time when dissatisfaction with Washington — and Congress — remains high across the country, Trump has embraced the idea that the election is all about him.

"I’m not on the ticket, but I am on the ticket, because this is also a referendum about me,” Trump said at a campaign rally in Southaven, Miss. “I want you to vote. Pretend I’m on the ballot.”

One strategy Trump has deployed to ensure he's at the forefront of voters' minds is to speak publicly more often in recent weeks than at any other time in his presidency — at campaign rallies, official White House events, on Twitter, on television, and, most notably, directly to the press corps.

On Saturday, the day a shooter murdered 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Trump gave a speech in his official capacity as president at a Future Farmers of America conference in Indianapolis and held a campaign rally in rural Illinois. He also spoke to reporters before he boarded Air Force One for Indianapolis, during the flight, after he landed there and after he arrived in Illinois.

"We haven’t seen a Republican president this active in midterms for quite some time," Caputo said approvingly.

Not only has Trump been active, he's taken a different tack than he did at the end of the 2016 campaign. Back then, as he battled Hillary Clinton to the finish line, Trump pulled back from his most inflammatory rhetoric.

But this time around, his barnstorming campaign has been full of invective aimed at the Democratic Party, individual political foils and the news media. Asked after the mail bombs were discovered — shortly before the synagogue shooting — whether he would tone his rhetoric down at all, Trump said he might do the opposite.

And so his base expects him not to back off at all, despite criticism that he's contributing to a fevered state in American politics.

"If you don’t mind, I’m going to tone it down just a little bit,” Trump asked the crowd in Murphysboro, Illinois, Saturday. “Is that OK?”

They yelled their disapproval.

Trump is determined to make sure that his voice — and those of his supporters — are heard loud and clear before voters go to the polls. The question is whether their voice will be heard quite as loudly at the polls next Tuesday.