Trump Runs the Kind of Campaign He Likes, but Not the One He Might Need

With little time left to change the trajectory of the race, there is a large gulf separating the president’s experience of the campaign from the more sobering assessments of party officials.



By Maggie Haberman and Alexander Burns

In public, President Trump and his campaign team project a sense of optimism and bravado. When they meet with Republican donors and state party leaders, presidential aides insist they are fully capable of achieving a close victory over Joseph R. Biden Jr. on Nov. 3.

On television and in campaign appearances, Mr. Trump and his children dismiss public polls that suggest that his prospects are bleak. The president’s calendar of events is packed through Election Day, with aides predicting a thrice-a-day rally schedule in the final weeks of the race. When Mr. Trump contemplates the prospect of defeat, he does so in a tone of denial and disbelief: “Could you imagine if I lose?” he asked a crowd Friday.

In private, most members of Mr. Trump’s team are grappling with a different reality.

Away from their candidate and the television cameras, some of Mr. Trump’s aides are quietly conceding just how dire his political predicament appears to be, and his inner circle has returned to a state of recriminations and backbiting. Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, is drawing furious blame from the president and some political advisers for his handling of Mr. Trump’s recent hospitalization, and he is seen as unlikely to hold onto his job past Election Day.

Mr. Trump’s campaign manager, Bill Stepien, has maintained to senior Republicans that the president has a path forward in the race but at times has conceded it is narrow.

Some midlevel aides on the Trump campaign have even begun inquiring about employment on Capitol Hill after the election, apparently under the assumption that there will not be a second Trump administration for them to serve in.

Less than three weeks before Election Day, there is now an extraordinary gulf separating Mr. Trump’s experience of the campaign from the more sobering political assessments of a number of party officials and operatives, according to interviews with nearly a dozen Republican strategists, White House allies and elected officials. Among some of Mr. Trump’s lieutenants, there is an attitude of grit mixed with resignation: a sense that the best they can do for the final stretch is to keep the president occupied, happy and off Twitter as much as possible, rather than producing a major shift in strategy.

Often, their biggest obstacle is Mr. Trump himself.

Instead of a delivering a focused closing message aimed at changing people’s perceptions about his handling of the coronavirus, or making a case for why he can revive the economy better than Mr. Biden can, Mr. Trump is spending the remaining days on a familiar mix of personal grievances, attacks on his opponents and obfuscations. He has portrayed himself as a victim, dodged questions about his own coronavirus testing, attacked his attorney general and the F.B.I. director and equivocated on the benefits of mask-wearing..

Rather than drawing a consistent contrast with Mr. Biden on the economy, strategists say, the president’s preference is to attack Mr. Biden’s son Hunter over his business dealings and to hurl personal insults like “Sleepy Joe” against a candidate whose favorability ratings are much higher than Mr. Trump’s.

“A lot of Republican consultants are frustrated because we want the president’s campaign to be laser-focused on the economy,” said David Kochel, a Republican strategist in Iowa. “Their best message is: Trump built a great economy” and Covid-19 damaged it, and Mr. Trump is a better option than Mr. Biden to restore it, he said.

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