This was President Trump’s first test of his ability to be the Campaigner in Chief in his new role as leader of his party. When he traveled to Huntsville, Alabama on Friday night, his mission was to put his stamp of approval on another candidate and transfer some of his popularity in a state where people actually like what he is doing in office.
Could he use one of his trademark rallies to promote someone other than himself—something Trump has not attempted since he became a candidate 19 months ago?
Alabama Republicans will give the final measure of his success when they choose Tuesday between incumbent Sen. Luther Strange, the choice of Trump and the GOP Washington Establishment, and Roy Moore, the front-running, hard-Right darling of so many of the president’s core supporters. Even before those election returns, though, it is clear that Trump was trying to do something at odds with his instincts and nature: share the spotlight.
For Trump, that meant veering between the praise for Strange on the text scrolling before him on the teleprompter and the off-the-cuff sturdy staples of all Trump rallies, the riffs on the Electoral College, his “awe-inspiring” election, the stock market, “Crooked Hillary,” the Russia investigation, flawed trade pacts, Obamacare, the wall, and, of course, “fake news.”
The president made a strenuous effort to make the event about Strange, mentioning his name five times in the first three minutes and repeating it a remarkable 69 times in the one hour and 23 minutes that he commanded the stage. And he searched for ways to boost his chosen candidate. His challenge there is one familiar to many presidents before him. There was relatively little to tout in the resume of the 64-year-old Strange, a one-time D.C. lobbyist whose appointment to the Senate vacancy was controversial at the time because it was made by a governor mired in a sex scandal and facing impeachment.
Both Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter would appreciate Trump’s dilemma. In 1956, then-Vice President Nixon went to Idaho to try to save Republican Sen. Herman Welker. He couldn’t talk about Welker’s record as Joseph McCarthy’s top defender in the Senate. So he ended up telling voters that Welker should be reelected because his daughter was “the best babysitter in the capital.” Voters were unimpressed. Welker was handily defeated, winning only 38 percent of the vote.
Carter tried a different tack in 1978 when he went to Colorado to boost the embattled Sen. Floyd Haskell. Haskell had made little mark on the Senate in his one term. But Carter chose hyperbole, calling Haskell “a national treasure” and “one of the great senators of all time.” Coloradans laughed. The Rocky Mountain News mocked Carter’s “purple praise” and “preposterously insincere compliments.” Haskell was soundly defeated in the election, getting only 40 percent of the vote.
On Saturday, Trump tried a third approach. Almost all of his praise for Strange was tied to his interactions with Trump. “He just treated me great,” said Trump, telling a long anecdote about how easy it was to get his vote for legislation. Other lawmakers, the president said disapprovingly, wanted to meet or discuss the bill or get something in return. But Strange immediately genuflected and pledged his support when called by the White House. He didn’t ask for anything in return. Strange’s easy submission tickled Trump. It explained, he said, why he was there when “the last thing I want to do is get involved in a primary.” He added, “We have to be loyal in life.” In a tweet Wednesday, the president struck a similar theme: “I am supporting ‘Big’ Luther Strange because he was so loyal & helpful to me!”
Presidents rarely have coattails except when they are on the ballot themselves. Republicans pushed hard for Trump to try to rescue Strange, though, because Alabama is one of the few states where his approval ratings are strong. Gallup polls in July had Alabama as Trump’s sixth-best state, with 55 percent of Alabamians approving of the job he is doing and 39 percent disapproving. If Strange prevails, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his colleagues will quickly forgive Trump mocking their interactions with him. They may even put aside Trump’s risible claim to voters that “he’s not a friend of Mitch McConnell. He doesn’t know Mitch McConnell, until just recently.”
Trump will worry about any possible fallout there later. Right now, he is more concerned about what will be said about him if Moore, a former justice on the state supreme court, holds onto his lead and defeats Strange on Tuesday. The president left no doubt that he understands that his critics will pounce. It might explain why he spent so much time talking about his own record and accomplishments.
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