MANCHESTER, N.H. — Donald Trump, mired in low poll numbers and attempting a major campaign reset, on Thursday retreated to the familiar place that served as his political launching pad: New Hampshire.
But for the first time, he returned as an underdog.
The New Hampshire primary played a pivotal role in propelling Trump to the GOP nomination earlier this year, but now state polls show him trailing the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, by double digits. The polling deficit in New Hampshire mirrors his problems in other swing states, where his campaign is also struggling to build an operation on the ground.
Trump has attempted to right his campaign’s ship in the last week. He hired a new campaign manager, started television advertising, planned more fund-raisers, and been more disciplined on the stump. Thursday’s rally marked the first time — after dozens of speeches — that Trump has ever used a teleprompter for a political event in the Queen City.
“Trump really needs to show he is retaking the lead somewhere to make an argument he is beginning to turn things around,” said New England College political science professor Wayne Lesperance. “I think the calculation inside the Trump campaign is that New Hampshire provides the best opportunity for that comeback story that they can then try to apply to other states. It is a longshot what they are trying to do, but they have to start somewhere.”
But while Trump’s approach has changed, his crowds have not. During his early afternoon speech, Trump spoke slowly, for the most part adhering to the teleprompter. The crowd erupted in chants of “lock her up” and “liar” — references to his opponent.
Trump, visibly energized by the hotel ballroom crowd of about 800 people, said the Clinton e-mail controversies involved a “criminal cover-up.” He then ventured off script, calling it “Watergate all over again.”
Trump devoted most of his remarks to challenging Clinton on several grounds while delivering the rhetoric that has proven popular in New Hampshire politics. More than being the candidate of change, Trump presented himself as a fighter for the less powerful, including minority communities, which have been highly skeptical of him.
“Hillary Clinton believes only in government of, by, and for the powerful,” Trump said. “I am promising government of, by, and for the people.”
With a little more than two months before Election Day, Trump has been playing catch-up in all battleground states, including New Hampshire. His campaign has fewer than 15 people on its payroll in the state — 10 of whom were hired in the last couple weeks. By comparison, a local Clinton campaign aide said they have 10 people working in just one part of the state, the Seacoast.
And while Trump has begun airing television ads in four battleground states, New Hampshire is not one of them. Clinton has been airing advertising for most of the summer on local television stations.
“Over the next 74 days, we are all going to work very hard together to win this state — just like we did in the primaries — and to win the White House for the American people,” Trump said.
Clinton was last in the state in mid-July, when she formally received the endorsement of her primary rival, Senator Bernie Sanders, in Portsmouth. Trump’s 50-minute address was delivered just a few hours before Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson held an event on the New Hampshire State House steps in Concord.
Kathryn Merriam, a history professor from Vermont, traveled to the Manchester event to hear Trump for the first time. A Trump supporter, Merriam described the campaign as a “social fight” of regular people rising up against the powerful.
“The way I see it this is an important historical moment between the people and the powerful, and I wanted to come witness it,” she said.
Trump was initially scheduled to deliver a major address on immigration on Thursday in Colorado. He is considering changing his position on the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country. Instead of creating a deportation force, as he has previously proposed, he has signaled that he would only immediately eject the “bad ones.”
“When I go through and I meet thousands and thousands of people on this subject . . . they’ve said, Mr. Trump, I love you, but to take a person that has been here for 15 or 20 years and throw them and the family out, it’s so tough, Mr. Trump,” Trump said at Fox News Channel town hall meeting that broadcast on Wednesday.
After the Colorado speech was canceled, his campaign put together a Manchester rally with just a couple days notice. Where his Colorado appearance would have been a chance to make headway in a diverse swing state that’s slipping away from him, he instead traveled to a state that is 94 percent white — and that gave him his first primary win.
In Manchester, Trump only made brief mention of immigration.
And after the crowd chanted, “build the wall,” Trump promised it would happen, “100 percent.” He did not say what he wanted to do with undocumented immigrants.
“I don’t think it is a flip-flop,” said Ed Dunbar, a 59-year-old investor and Trump supporter from Manchester. “What he said earlier may sound great, but logistically it is impossible and I think what he is saying now just reflects that reality.”
Asked if the change undercuts Trump’s central theme, Dunbar said it did not.
“Trump’s basic point is that he is not a member of the damn political class, and that doesn’t change no matter what positions he takes,” Dunbar said.
James Pindell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.