MANCHESTER, N.H. — President Trump opened his first rally of the 2020 campaign in the state by attacking the Democrats competing to face him next November, musing about his strategy, and workshopping his 2020 slogan with the crowd of thousands.
“Pocahontas is rising,” he said, using his favorite offensive moniker for Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, prompting a wave of boos from the crowd toward her. “Kamala is falling. You got Beto, Beto is like, he is gone. We’ll see whoever it is. Well, maybe Sleepy Joe will limp across.”
He then asked if the crowd preferred his 2016 slogan, “Make America Great Again” — “the greatest slogan in the history of politics” — or a new one, “Keep America Great!” The crowd roared its approval for the latter, which already hung on the banners behind the president.
From the harsh nicknames and boastful rhetoric to the sea of red hats, Trump’s Thursday rally at the SNHU Arena marked the latest stop in Trump’s campaign, which never really ended after the 2016 election. (The president held a campaign-style rally less than a month after Inauguration Day in 2017.)
But such appearances also represent Trump’s stark advantage over his yet-to-be-chosen Democratic opponent. As the 22 remaining hopefuls jostle for attention and dollars in a primary that could stretch until next summer, the president repeatedly takes the stage — both the literal one and that of the public’s attention — and hammers away.
Trump, who made his name through savvy branding, repeatedly framed the contest with compact talking points. “The Democratic Party is the party of high taxes, high crime, open borders, late term abortions, and socialism. The Republican Party is the party of freedom, the American worker, the American family, and the American Dream. And I am fighting for you each and every day,” he said.
His early start doesn’t guarantee anything, and Trump’s tweets in the hours before the rally focused on the biggest risk to his reelection: the mounting evidence that a recession could be coming, sparked in part by the president’s trade war with China.
He continued to defend his economic record during the rally and said his hardball strategy with China is working. Trump asserted that financial markets would have “crashed” if he had lost in 2016, and “that will happen if I don’t win in 2020.”
“You have no choice but to vote for me, because your 401(k)’s down the tubes, everything’s going be down the tubes. So whether you love me or hate me, you gotta vote for me,” he said.
Trump rejected the idea that the tariffs involved are causing Americans to pay more for certain products, despite data that show some prices on the rise.
“I never said China was going to be easy,” he added, contradicting a statement he made in March 2018 that trade wars “are easy to win.”
But he stayed away from mentioning Israel’s decision to ban Democratic Representatives Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota from entering the country, a move made after Trump tweeted that Israel would “show great weakness” if it allowed the two Muslim lawmakers to visit. Israel said it banned them because of their support for an economic boycott over Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
The Trump campaign says the rally, the president’s first visit to the state in well over a year, is part of a plan to flip New Hampshire, which Hillary Clinton won in 2016 by fewer than 3,000 votes.
But it won’t be easy. A University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll released this week put Trump’s approval rating at just 42 percent, with 53 percent who disapprove — about where the president stood a year ago. Of more concern for Trump: He suffered a 15-point drop in his approval rating among the state’s independents, who make up over 40 percent of registered voters.
Winning New Hampshire — the scene of Trump’s first-ever electoral victory of any kind — would give his campaign breathing room elsewhere on the map. Trump told the raucous crowd that their state is a special place for him because he defeated the odds to win the 2016 GOP primary there.
And nationally, Trump’s narrow 2016 victory will be difficult to replicate. All the more reason, analysts say, that Trump’s ability to focus now on the general election gives the New York Republican a major edge. (Former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld is challenging Trump in the GOP primary but has not yet shown himself to be a serious threat.)
“It’s a huge advantage to be able to raise money and prepare for general election more than a year before there will be a Democratic nominee,” said Michael Steel, who was an adviser to Jeb Bush’s 2016 Republican presidential campaign.
During his remarks, Trump paused to praise his onetime campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, who lives in New Hampshire, asking his former aide to “let us know please” if he decides to run for Senate next year. (Earlier in the day, Lewandowski was subpoenaed by the US House Judiciary Committee along former White House staffer Rick Dearborn as part of an effort by Democrats to hear more from key figures in the report from former special counsel Robert Mueller.)
In the hours before the rally, thousands of Trump supporters in red “Make America Great Again” hats waited in the afternoon heat, lining the closed-off road as far as half a mile from the stadium.
All day, the various Democratic presidential campaigns tried to outdo each other to get attention. Campaigns participated in rallies around the state or one of three press conferences run by the state Democratic Party.
“Democrats need to be braced for the fact that [Trump] will attempt to use Twitter and his rallies and his Facebook advertising to define the leading Democratic candidates and to define the agenda by picking fights on issues of his choosing,” said Brian Fallon, a former top Clinton aide and the founder of the liberal advocacy group Demand Justice.
As music played and vendors offered colorful hats, shirts, and flags, attendees of the Trump rally spoke enthusiastically of the president and his term so far.
“He often says what people are thinking, but don’t dare say,” said David Marshall of Wilmot, N.H.
Walking toward the stadium’s entrance, Robyn Francouer pushed back hard on accusations from Democrats — including from some presidential contenders — that Trump is a racist. The 59-year-old Manchester resident said the tactic is a last resort “because they can’t beat him any other way.”
Roughly 100 protesters also showed up outside the stadium Thursday afternoon, cordoned off from supporters by a short fence. Holding signs that said “Dump Trump” and “No Hate In The Granite State,” the group chanted anti-Trump slogans as pro-Trump attendees walked by and responded in kind.
Standing nearby, Jane Fargo of Bow, N.H., waved a sign that said, “Build a wall around Trump. I’ll pay for it!”
Globe correspondent Kellen Browning contributed to this report. Victoria McGrane can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @vgmac. James Pindell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell.