RIO RANCHO, N.M. — President Donald Trump, looking to put New Mexico in play in 2020, sought to win over Hispanic voters at a rally here Monday.
The president's pitch to Hispanic voters seemed to silo them off from the rest of the electorate, including the rally crowd ("We love our Hispanics"). It featured an assertion that they had a greater understanding of the source of the drug problem than other Americans. And it included a section in which Trump wondered how CNN contributor Steve Cortes could be Hispanic even though, the president said, he appeared to be of Northern European descent.
“He happens to be Hispanic, but I never quite figured it out because he looks more like a WASP than I do,” Trump said of Cortes, who was in the audience.
From the stage, he asked Cortes: "Who do you like more, the country or the Hispanics?” Cortes appeared to mouth “country,” to which Trump replied: “I don’t know. I may have to go for the Hispanics, to be honest with you. We got a lot of Hispanics.”
Download the NBC News app for breaking news and politics
Trump later said Hispanics should support him and his efforts to build a border wall because they understand the roots of the drug problem better than other voters.
"And at the center of America's drug crisis, this is where the Hispanics know it better than anybody, people said, 'Oh, the Hispanics won't like a wall.' I said, 'I think they are going to love it,'" Trump said. "You know why? Because you understand it better than other people, but at the whole center of this crisis is the drugs that are pouring in, and you understand that when other people don't understand it."
“Nobody loves the Hispanics more,” Trump told the crowd. “We love our Hispanics, get out and vote.”
Red, white and green “Latinos for Trump” signs littered the crowd, with a directive to text “VAMOS” to the campaign number on the back. New Mexico’s population is nearly 50 percent Hispanic, according to the Census Bureau.
Trump was working on his 2020 campaign insurance policy with the Monday night trip to New Mexico, making a risky bet he could pick up a state he lost by 8 points and where Republicans suffered significant defeats in last year’s midterm elections.
“How do I lose New Mexico? Explain that one,” Trump asked the crowd, as he touted his support from Hispanics.
Trump's disapproval rating among Hispanics stood at 79 percent in a Pew Research Center poll last month.
Republican campaign strategists acknowledge that the president, who narrowly won a handful of swing states to propel himself to the White House, needs to work on a backup plan for 2020 to win over voters in states he lost in 2016 — an insurance policy, should other battlegrounds flip in favor of his Democratic opponent.
That has the campaign looking to states like New Mexico, New Hampshire, Nevada and Minnesota to potentially make up the difference with the extra time and money they have while Democrats battle it out over who their nominee will be. Picking up those three states, for example, would offset the loss of Wisconsin, where polls show Trump trailing in potential head-to-head matchups.
During his presidency, Trump has rarely traveled to states he didn’t win, though that has been starting to change. He held a rally in August in New Hampshire, where he claimed without evidence that he would have won there had it not been for alleged illegal voting in the state.
It's a strategy that's less a fight for available swing states than a push to turn tough terrain into battleground territory in the first place. For instance: New Mexico, with five Electoral College votes, hasn’t backed Republican for president since 2004, when then-President George W. Bush narrowly edged out John Kerry.
And Republicans suffered significant losses in three other states that share a border with Mexico — California, Texas and Arizona — as Trump made a migrant caravan coming up from Mexico a central piece of his closing arguments for the midterm election.
Still, Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale maintained ahead of the president’s visit that the administration's policies on issues such as immigration and trade were resonating with residents of this border state — and continued to claim the campaign had data suggesting strength here, and support from Latinos.
Monday's rally kicked off a three-day West Coast swing for the president, who planned to travel Tuesday to California for fundraising events and return to Washington on Wednesday.
CORRECTION (Sept. 17, 2019, 8:30 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misquoted President Donald Trump. He said, "Who do you like more — the country or the Hispanics?", not "Who do you love more — the country or Hispanics?"