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Trump delays N.H. campaign event, citing weather, as virus raises questions about the future of his rallies

President Trump.
President Trump.Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — President Trump’s Saturday night rally in Portsmouth, N.H., was supposed to give his reelection campaign a much needed boost as his polling numbers lag, a shot in the arm from the state that handed him his first blowout primary victory in 2016.

But locals — and prominent state Republicans — spent days telegraphing concerns that the outdoor gathering could fuel the spread of the coronavirus. And on Friday, Trump’s campaign abruptly postponed the rally, citing the threat of a tropical storm that was not forecast to affect the area during his speaking time.

“The rally scheduled for Saturday in Portsmouth, New Hampshire has been postponed for safety reasons because of Tropical Storm Fay,” said Tim Murtaugh, a campaign spokesman, in a statement. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters the event would be rescheduled in “a week or two.”

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The National Weather Service predicted an 80 percent chance of rain on Saturday during the day as the storm was expected to track to the west — but forecast that Portsmouth would be relatively dry Saturday night, with a chance of showers between 7 and 8 p.m. The rally was due to start at 8.

The postponement comes three weeks after Trump drew a smaller-than-expected crowd in Tulsa, Okla., amid concerns that his indoor rally there could spread the virus, and as Florida Republicans consider the safest way to hold the large event he wants for his convention acceptance speech.

It underscores how planning his rallies has become more complex because of the deadly virus, and raises the question of how and whether the biggest showman in politics, a president who thrives on the energy of his campaign rallies, can put on the show he wants if the pandemic continues to rage between now and the election.

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“As we go forward, we are going to evaluate the best way for the president to hold rallies in an environment where people feel safe and comfortable coming to hear him speak,” said Corey Lewandowski, a senior adviser to Trump’s campaign.

After months off the campaign trail, Trump was greeted on June 20 in Tulsa by an indoor stadium that was two-thirds empty after health officials warned it was not safe for large crowds to gather inside. Cases of the virus in Tulsa have jumped since, which local officials say could be linked to the rally.

His planned rally at Portsmouth International Airport at Pease was designed in a way that was meant to assuage health concerns. It would be held in an open airport hangar with most of the crowd outside, which experts say is safer than an indoor gathering, and his campaign promised to distribute masks and hand sanitizer. But when his most prominent supporter in the state, Republican Governor Chris Sununu, told CNN he had no intention of standing in the crowd, it stoked questions about whether health concerns would again prevent the president from drawing a big crowd.

On Friday morning, Trump boasted about a great turnout in Portsmouth. “We’re going to have a big crowd and we’re going to have a great crowd,” he said on “New Hampshire Today with Jack Heath” hours before the campaign canceled the rally.

Marc Lotter, the Trump campaign’s director of strategic communications, wasn’t as certain when he spoke on the radio show shortly before Trump. Asked if attendance would be in the thousands, Lotter responded, “I don’t have a good guess on that.”

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Trump’s aides strenuously denied the rally was canceled because of anticipated poor attendance. “We have never had a crowd-building problem for Donald Trump since his first foray into New Hampshire,” Lewandowski said. But the sequence of events highlights just how much more difficult it will be for Trump to hold rallies in the pandemic world, if only because they become immediately linked to concerns about public health.

In New Hampshire, Democrats seized on the rally to assail Sununu for not mandating that people wear masks in public. Three of the state’s 10 Republican state senators told the Globe they were not planning to attend, and one of them, Sharon Carson, cited health concerns as part of her reasoning, because she has a family member with a health condition.

“They can’t have every rally turn into a debate about whether or not it’s subjecting the attendees to health risks,” said Colin Reed, a Republican strategist. “You can’t have your greatest asset turn into a potential liability.”

In 2016, Trump’s campaign rallies were one of his most potent weapons, demonstrating he was building a following and drawing heavy media coverage of his free-wheeling — and often shocking — campaign speeches. They also gave him the attention he craves, and they have been a balm for him amid the criticism and roadblocks of governing in Washington.

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“There’s no way to look at what’s happened, especially since the pandemic began, and not see he’s been battered,” said Michael D’Antonio, who has written biographies of Trump. “These rallies are an antidote, it’s almost like medication for his sore feelings.”

The postponement of the Portsmouth rally comes at a precipitous moment for Trump’s campaign, which has lagged in key battleground states as polls show strong disapproval of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. An ABC/Ipsos poll this week showed his approval at a low of just 33 percent. His campaign has reserved advertising time in states he won easily in 2016, like Ohio, Iowa, and Georgia. One poll this week showed him leading Biden by just 3 points in deep red Alaska.

Trump’s campaign nevertheless has its sights set on states it narrowly lost in 2016, including New Hampshire. But a poll from St. Anselm College in mid-June showed him 7 points behind Biden, and Republicans in the state say it may well be slipping out of reach.

“This was a state that really was benefiting from the vibrancy of the economy — that’s gone now,” said Tom Rath, a longtime Republican operative who did not support Trump in 2016 and may back Biden this year. “What you’re left with is his persona, which is an asset for those who believe in him, but is something that is contrary to our nature if you don’t.”

Frank McCarthy, the chair of the Carroll County Republicans, blamed Trump’s problems in New Hampshire on the “fake news” and said he was working hard to make inroads with the state’s independent voters. “We’re having signs made up right now that say ‘Save America, vote Republican,‘ ” he said.

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But McCarthy had not planned on making the drive down to Portsmouth for the rally.

The postponement came as a relief to Bill Ball, 71, a retiree from Stratham who plans to support Trump in November but is nervous about possible health fallout from a rally in the state. He also wasn’t going to attend the rally.

“This part of the country’s done very well — I would hate to see us going the other direction just because of an event like that,” Ball, an independent voter, said. “I think it’s just better not to have it.”

James Pindell and Zoe Greenberg of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.