WASHINGTON -- For weeks, President Donald Trump's campaign aides have fretted about whether he could draw a major crowd to an outdoor venue Saturday night in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, or if not, whether they could stage the event to make it look full.
The danger, all agreed, was a repeat of Trump's disastrous last rally, three weeks ago in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where TV cameras showed two-thirds of the indoor arena as a sea of empty blue seats, and the vast throngs predicted outside failed to materialize.
Worse, health officials later said the president's Tulsa rally "likely contributed" to a sharp spike in coronavirus infections in the state, one of three dozen now battling a record increase in COVID 19 cases.
On Friday, the White House abruptly pulled the plug on the planned New Hampshire rally, citing weather worries even though the forecast showed morning thunderstorms mostly clearing by the evening. Aides said it would be rescheduled.
The decision reflects the growing nervousness in Trump's campaign, which is desperate to avoid another embarrassment as his prospects for a second term dim. The struggle to stage the giant raucous rallies that propelled Trump's 2016 run makes clear just how difficult his second campaign has become.
Even before the rally was scrubbed, there was little of the hype that preceded Tulsa, far less talk about a triumphant return to the campaign trail or an aggressive relaunch of a reelection bid that ran aground once the economy tanked this spring as COVID-19 spread from state to state and Trump's response was widely seen as lacking.
"People recognize there's been a rough patch and it's been a challenging month or so," said one former administration official with ties to the campaign. "That rally in Tulsa did not go well by any stretch, by any measure."
While rumors still swirl about a looming staff shake-up, those involved in the reelection effort are increasingly resigned to getting behind their often self-destructive candidate, according to interviews with numerous people involved in the campaign who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
They are pinning their hopes on the possibility that Trump or the broader political and economic environment will somehow change in the next four months and that the magic of 2016, when Trump eked out a narrow win at the wire, will repeat itself in his face-off against Joe Biden.
"We were in dire straits in early October and mid-October" in 2016, then Trump "ran the script beautifully" in the final weeks, another Trump campaign official said.