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WASHINGTON (AP) — It’s getting late early.

President Donald Trump is privately reassuring Republicans anxious about his deficits to Democrat Joe Biden, noting there are three months until Election Day and reminding them of the late-breaking events that propelled his 2016 comeback.

But four years later, the dynamics are very different.

Aides are increasingly worried that the 2020 campaign may already be defined as a referendum on Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and will feature a historic shift to remote and early vote options. The president’s campaign is scrambling for a reset, pausing advertisements while struggling to find both a cohesive message and a way to safely put the president on the road in front of voters.

Trump added to the tumult by publicly wondering if the election should be delayed while making the unfounded claim that the tilt toward mail-in balloting would lead to widespread voter fraud. That suggestion drew a rare rebuke from Republicans, many of whom quietly warned the White House that it could be interpreted as an admission that the president was losing and could hurt their chances of retaining the Senate.

And they warned that time is running out: The first state to hold early voting, the vital battleground of North Carolina, begins the process Sept. 4.

“He’s losing and the trajectory of the race is moving away from him,” said Steve Schmidt, a senior adviser on Republican John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and an opponent of Trump’s reelection. “People vote at a moment in time: Even if there is something of a political recovery for the president in October, that is irrelevant for those who already voted.”

A sudden halt in Trump’s expensive television advertisements last week highlighted the campaign’s challenge. It came just two weeks after a staffing shakeup and two months after Trump’s previous campaign manager unleashed a “Death Star” ad blitz on Biden that only coincided with the president’s support falling even further.

The campaign downplayed the ad pause, saying that the new campaign manager, Bill Stepien, wanted to analyze when and where Trump’s advertising message was being delivered. A significant amount of TV ad time has already been reserved from Labor Day until the election, and the campaign said it would reboot its advertising on Monday.

The purchase was made with an eye on the new electoral calendar. The old adage that most of America doesn’t start paying attention to a campaign until Labor Day has been tossed aside in a year in which the novel coronavirus has killed more than 150,000 people in the U.S. and rewritten the rules of American society.

The new ad campaign will be a national buy but also target states that are among the earliest to vote. Trump campaign officials said the focus in August will be on states where more than half of the ballots will be cast before Election Day.

“The digital countdown clock on the wall may say 90-some days, but we all know the calendar is condensed with early voting,” said campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh.

Still, the Trump campaign has been wavering for weeks.

It has struggled to land effective blows on Biden. Trump and his allies have recently sought to tie Biden to the extreme leftist elements of his party, an uneasy fit for a moderate who has been in the public eye for more than four decades.

The campaign has all but pulled the plug on competing in Michigan and, privately, acknowledges deficits in vital battleground states like Florida, Wisconsin and Arizona, though it insists the margins are manageable and smaller than what is reflected in public polling. They also downplayed the chances of losing reliably Republican states, though Trump did make a campaign stop in Texas last week.

Trump’s support collapsed after the pandemic reached America’s shores and crushed its economy. With the Republican National Convention scaled back and rallies seemingly impossible to hold, Trump is running out of headline-grabbing set pieces to change the momentum of the race.

Many around the president are focused on the debates as perhaps the best chance, pushing for more showdowns with Biden to increase the chance of the former vice president faltering on stage.

“A lot of people are going to start voting before Sept. 29. The idea that they would not have seen one presidential debate by then, to me, seems ridiculous,” said former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Trump ally. “I think we should either move the dates up or add additional debates.”

The president’s advisers are also trying to re-imagine a campaign without its trademark rallies. Trump has been traveling to both smaller campaign gatherings and official events in swing states — on Friday, he attended one of each in Florida — and White House aides are readying a calendar full of day trips for the weeks ahead.

The convention is also being redrawn. Trump will likely travel several times during the last week of August, when the massive gathering was initially scheduled. He’s expected to stop in North Carolina during one day of the dramatically revised convention.

Trump will also deliver an acceptance speech in a high-profile location on the Thursday of what would have been convention week, according to campaign and White House officials who requested anonymity to discuss planning.

And while Trump has customarily taken a multiweek vacation at his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf course in August, there is not one currently slated for this month.

The president has noted to advisers that it was later in August 2016 when he brought in Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway to his campaign, the eventual winning campaign leadership combination. But the president was behind until late that October when FBI Director James Comey announced the reopening of an investigation into Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, a seismic event that reshaped the race.

As Trump sows doubt about the integrity of the election this year, questions are swirling about access to voting during the pandemic as well as the potential for more foreign electoral interference. Campaign advisers are increasingly pinning their hopes on the unlikely occurrence of another big October surprise, such as the development of a coronavirus vaccine.

But some Republicans believe there is still time to make a more effective response to the virus the center of his case for a second term.

“By the speed at which news and events move in 2020, it’s not necessarily the case that he is running out of time,” said Ari Fleischer, former press secretary to President George W. Bush. “Much of the public will not pay attention to what he will say on law and order and the economy until he gets over the COVID hurdle first.”

___

Lemire reported from New York.

Copyright © 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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While campaigning for Trump, former Florida AG Pam Bondi stresses the importance of mail-in-ballots

Photo via NSFFormer Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi implored Republican Party volunteers in Tallahassee to stress the positives of mail-in-ballots as a campaign bus tour for President Donald Trump swung through Northwest Florida on Wednesday.

Trump campaign senior adviser Corey Lewandowski also signaled the party will try to paint California Sen. Kamala Harris, who was announced Tuesday as Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s running mate, as being part of the “far left.”

“I don't know what she brings to the ticket,” Lewandowski said while on the bus. “We weren't concerned about potentially losing the state of California. I will concede the fact Donald Trump is not going to win in California. But we have to look at her record, both as a prosecutor and as a United States senator. She voted against Donald Trump's tax cuts that help everyday working Americans. She votes for the Green New Deal.”

Speaking to the party volunteers, Bondi repeated a refrain that Florida’s “absentee” ballot process is different than a “universal” vote-by-mail process that has been derided by Trump in other states as “inaccurate and fraudulent.” Trump appears to be singling out states that have decided to send mail-in ballots or applications to all registered voters, while Floridians have to request mail-in ballots.

“It (Florida’s process) is safe, especially for older people who don't want to leave their homes, for people who are worried about getting sick,” Bondi said.

Early voting is underway at polling places throughout the state in next week’s primary elections. But it has been dwarfed by people voting through the mail amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Early voting is safe. Plenty of people have already early voted. I think they're keeping social distancing, keeping it safe,” Bondi said. “But for those who don't want to do that, you know, we just need to stress to all the people that we're coming into contact with, that you have to request a ballot in Florida. You have to sign it. You can even track that ballot the whole way in. So, for people that don't feel comfortable voting, that's the way to do it in our state.”

As of Wednesday morning Democrats had cast 859,606 vote-by-mail ballots in the Aug. 18 primaries to 609,929 by Republicans. Republicans led among people voting at early-voting sites by a margin of 151,383 to 105,235.

Florida is expected to be a key battleground for Trump and Biden in the Nov. 3 general election. The Trump bus tour started Monday in Orlando, with the president’s son Eric Trump and Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nunez making appearances.

Lewandowski, who was a campaign manager for Trump in 2016, contended Wednesday that Harris would not be ready to take over for Biden.

Lewandowski said that when Vice President Mike Pence was selected as Trump’s running mate in 2016, “We found the person who, if something was going to happen to the president, was ready to go to the job on day one.”

The Trump campaign also is holding a bus tour in Pennsylvania, another battleground state. As the Florida tour kicked off in Orlando, Democrats quickly criticized it.

“Today, the Trump campaign begins their Magical Mystery Tour, where they pretend the coronavirus will just go away and leave voters guessing as to the president’s national testing plan,” U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla., said Monday in a conference call. “Meanwhile back in reality, a pandemic and recession rages on in Florida, and Trump’s selfish and incompetent leadership is fanning the flames.”

State Sen. Victor Torres, D-Kissimmee, in the same call described the Trump bus tour as a “gimmick.” 

Harris is the first Black woman on a major-party presidential ticket, and Biden received heavy support from Black voters in locking up the Democratic nomination. But Lewandowski on Wednesday contended that Biden has taken the African-American vote for granted.

Before the Tallahassee stop, Republican volunteers planted numerous “Black Voices for Trump” signs at the site west of Florida State University, which drew a Black jogger to scoff “you’ve got to be kidding me” as he passed.

Leon County Republican Party Chairman Evan Power said the bus tour stop helps recharge volunteers and local campaign efforts.

“In this time of COVID, where we can't have rallies, it's great to be able to have these intimate opportunities for them to meet surrogates from the campaign,” Power said.

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