In public, President Donald Trump and his campaign team project a sense of optimism and bravado. When they meet with Republican donors and state party leaders, presidential aides insist they are fully capable of achieving a close victory over Joe Biden on November 3.
On television and in campaign appearances, Trump and his children dismiss public polls that suggest that his prospects are bleak. The president’s calendar of events is packed through Election Day, with aides predicting a thrice-a-day rally schedule in the final weeks of the race. When Trump contemplates the prospect of defeat, he does so in a tone of denial and disbelief.
“Could you imagine if I lose?” he asked a crowd Friday.
In private, most members of Trump’s team acknowledge that is not a far-fetched possibility.
Away from their candidate and the television cameras, some of Trump’s aides are quietly conceding just how dire his political predicament appears to be, and his inner circle has returned to a state of recriminations and backbiting. Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, is drawing furious blame from the president and some political advisers for his handling of Trump’s recent hospitalization, and he is seen as unlikely to hold onto his job past Election Day.
Trump’s campaign manager, Bill Stepien, has maintained to senior Republicans that the president has a path forward in the race but at times has conceded it is narrow.
Some midlevel aides on the campaign have even begun inquiring about employment on Capitol Hill after the election, apparently under the assumption that there will not be a second Trump administration for them to serve in. (It is not clear how appealing the Trump campaign might be as a résumé line for private-sector employers).
But few people close to Trump present the path ahead to him in those terms, Republicans say. They recognize that the president knows he outpolls most GOP candidates in their own districts or states and that suggesting to him that he is on track to lose would be unlikely to produce constructive results.
Trump, in the meantime, is discussing diversions from his own schedule to help people he cares about personally; for instance, he is likely to schedule an event with Graham. Although the trip would overlap with a North Carolina media market, and is personally pleasing to Trump, it would do little to help his own electoral map.
It is that kind of distraction that has frustrations mounting on Capitol Hill and even within the West Wing, over what many Republicans regard as a wasted October so far, including the decision to spurn a second debate.
“The reality is they are probably out of time,” said Rob Stutzman, a California-based Republican strategist. “They desperately needed the debate to have a larger audience and to have an opportunity to provide some kind of contrast that would change the race trajectory, meaning a different Trump or an opportunity for a Biden gaffe. That was their best hope for a Hail Mary.”
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