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Trump falls back on insurgent's rage in kicking off 2020 bid

For one night in a packed arena in Orlando, President Donald Trump tried to recapture the insurgent energy and anything-might-happen feel of the campaign that fueled his bid for the White House four years ago. Trump's challenge as he took the sta...

President Trump announced his reelection bd in Orlando, Fla., on Tuesday, touting accomplishments and attacking perceived enemies. Zack Wittman / The Washington Post
President Trump announced his reelection bd in Orlando, Fla., on Tuesday, touting accomplishments and attacking perceived enemies. Zack Wittman / The Washington Post

For one night in a packed arena in Orlando, President Donald Trump tried to recapture the insurgent energy and anything-might-happen feel of the campaign that fueled his bid for the White House four years ago.

Trump's challenge as he took the stage, however, was that a lot has happened, and not all of it lent itself to a rip-roaring rally. He opened with a familiar litany of complaints about Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation and his political opponents that stirred the thousands in attendance.

But as he wound through a laundry list of presidential accomplishments, the energy in the audience waned. Some people sat down, checked their phones or made an early exit.

Thick with grievance, the 78-minute speech also showed the dark underbelly of his re-election bid. He made clear that he'll seek to animate his formidable political base by exploiting the nation's political divisions and by appealing to their fears of immigrants and their hostility toward the Democratic Party.

Lines about "ripping babies straight from the mother's womb" and "morally reprehensible" Democratic border policies showed Trump won't shy away from exaggeration or inflammatory language as he tries to turn the culture wars to his advantage.

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"This election is a verdict on whether we want to live in a country where the people who lose an election refuse to concede and spend the next two years trying to shred our constitution and rip your country apart," Trump said.

To win re-election, Trump will need to harness the energy of his rallies time and again over the next 16 months. But the president faces an American public that polling suggests is disillusioned with his behavior, as well as the inherent challenge of running as an outsider while sitting in the Oval Office.

But Trump brought the crowd to their feet by railing against Democrats and by testing two campaign slogans against one another - "Make America Great Again" and "Keep America Great." The latter won.

The president's aides and allies said Tuesday's rally in the crucial battleground of Florida demonstrated just how the president would confront running as an insurgent incumbent. Tens of thousands of people requested tickets to the event, showing that his freewheeling style and populist message still strongly resonates with a deeply devoted base.

The rally gave Trump a unique opportunity to collect data and ready election strategy at a point when even former Vice President Joe Biden, who leads polls of Democratic presidential hopefuls, is still haphazardly planning events with only a few hundred attendees at hotel ballrooms across Iowa.

But the worry for Trump's team is that they might not be able to replicate Orlando over a grueling year-and-a-half campaign.

For one, the novelty that is Trump has already shown signs of wearing thin. During the midterm elections in 2018, cable channels - including Fox News, the president's self-proclaimed favorite - stopped airing many of the president's rallies as ratings lagged regular programming.

CNN and MSNBC both dropped live coverage of Trump's Orlando rally well before he finished his speech.

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He was met in Orlando by an editorial in the city's newspaper, the Orlando Sentinel, declaring that it would endorse someone other than Trump for 2020. The paper has a record of endorsing Republicans for president, including Mitt Romney in 2012.

"There's no point pretending we would ever recommend that readers vote for Trump," the paper's editorial board said. "After 2 1/2 years, we've seen enough. Enough of the chaos, the division, the schoolyard insults, the self-aggrandizement, the corruption, and especially the lies."

That's dangerous for a president who received some $5.6 billion in free "earned media" during the 2016 election, according to data from the tracking firm mediaQuant. Trump has often recognized the impact of media coverage.

"It is called Earned Media," he said of an ABC News interview that produced disappointing ratings for the network, Politico reported. "In any event, enjoy the show!"

Trump must also replicate his success among working-class Americans who have complained of feeling forgotten by Washington. Their candidate has now controlled the levers of power in the city for more than two years.

Sympathizing with those voters isn't tough for Trump, who regularly fumes about his political opponents and frequently entertains conspiracy theories about a "deep state" set against him. He has practically dared House Democrats to impeach him, banking that the move would further rile up aggrieved supporters.

But Trump has also struggled to explain away unfulfilled promises from the 2016 campaign trail.

He has failed to secure funding for a wall stretching the entirety of the southern border. He's shown frustration that his 2018 tax cut is increasingly seen as having failed to spur new economic growth, blaming Jerome Powell - the Federal Reserve chairman he nominated - for raising interest rates too quickly.

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And as health care costs continue to rise despite the revolutionary reforms Trump promised time and again on the campaign trail, the president has continued to blame political enemies - including deceased former Sen. John McCain - for his inability to repeal Obamacare.

Trump's zeal to flout convention and assign blame anywhere but his own desk may serve him well with his loyal base, but the midterm election results - in which Democrats gained control of the House of Representatives on a surge in voter turnout - and current polling suggest the broader electorate doesn't buy it.

So far, Trump consistently trails potential Democratic opponents despite a presidency that's seen steady economic growth and relative peace. A Fox News poll released over the weekend showed Biden with a 10-point advantage over Trump in a hypothetical matchup, with Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent, leading the president by nine points. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg also led Trump.

Rather than attacking his possible challengers, Trump returned to the fights of 2016. He mentioned Hillary Clinton eight times during his speech, but only referenced Biden twice and Sanders once. He made no mention of Warren, Harris or Buttigieg.

Sanders, whom Trump called "crazy," responded with a YouTube live-stream immediately after the president's remarks. The Democratic 2020 contender called Trump "the most dangerous president in the modern history of this country."

Harris said on MSNBC that Trump "is looking in the rear-view mirror, not the windshield. This is a president who's trying to make America great again instead of trying to make America great today."

The Trump campaign has said its models show the president leading in key battleground states, and general election polls historically have little predictive power this far from Election Day. But the gap has nevertheless caused obvious consternation.

Trump's incumbency is also an advantage. Reluctant conservatives who might have been unable to imagine him occupying the White House four years ago can now envision another term of deregulation and filling the courts with conservative judges. The same Fox News poll that showed Biden with a significant lead also found that some 89 percent of Republicans approved of the job Trump's doing, providing the president with a comfortable base.

"As long as you keep this team in place," he said Tuesday, "we have a tremendous way to go."

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