WASHINGTON -- Four years after his hostile takeover of the White House, President Donald Trump's second campaign bears little resemblance to the first -- he's flush with cash, buoyed by an uptick in poll numbers, and brimming with confidence after surviving investigations, an impeachment and myriad controversies that have helped unite once-wary Republicans behind him.
Unlike his slapdash, anything goes 2016 campaign, Trump now can rely on a massive, professionalized apparatus that has helped raise more than $200 million, deployed eager surrogates to early primary states, and built an extensive field operation and advertising network months before Democrats are likely to choose their nominee.
He also has found new ways to break political taboos, seeking to overshadow Democratic candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire just before they held their nominating contests and playing with voters' already frazzled nerves. At a primary-eve rally in Manchester, N.H., the president even urged supporters in the state who were registered independents, and thus able to vote in either party's primary, to vote for the weakest Democrat.
"My only problem is I'm trying to figure who is their weakest candidate -- I think they're all weak!" he said with a broad grin.
It's an in-your-face strategy hashed out largely by campaign manager Brad Parscale and, of course, the president, an intense manager of his own brand who is determined to remain on offense and to create the appearance of dominance and popularity that, he hopes, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in November.
"He will not give the Democrats a free pass any day of this campaign. They don't get to have their day where they dominate the news," said Matt Schlapp, a veteran GOP operative whose wife, Mercedes, works for the Trump campaign. "He's stepping into their days and talking about why he should get four more years."
"The more Democrats smear President Trump, the more enthusiasm we see for him and his many accomplishments," Ronna McDaniel, chair of the Republican National Committee, said in a statement.
There is some evidence for that. A Gallup tracking poll from the last two weeks of January, during the Senate impeachment trial, showed Trump's approval rating at 49%, its highest point ever. And the campaign raised $1 million in online donations for 10 straight days during the trial. More recent polls show the president's approval number back in the low-to-mid 40s, where it has hovered for most of his term, although his support among Republicans is sky high.
None of that makes his reelection as inevitable as his campaign suggests. He is running well behind the top Democratic contenders, according to a Quinnipiac University poll this week that showed the president losing a hypothetical head-to-head race to Michael Bloomberg by nine points, Bernie Sanders by eight and Joe Biden by seven.
He also trailed Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar by at least four points, according to the survey.