HAVELOCK, N.C. - Trying to prove his political clout by pushing a Republican to victory in a special election , President Donald Trump used a North Carolina rally to paint a bleak picture of a nation he claimed would be overrun with crime, poverty and immigrants if Democrats seize power in Washington.
Trump, appearing Monday at his first campaign rally in nearly a month, went on the offensive in an effort to change a series of late-summer negative headlines over his slipping poll numbers, warning signs of an economic slowdown and a running battle over hurricane forecasts. He urged the Fayetteville crowd to vote for Republican Dan Bishop on Tuesday, brandishing his usual incendiary rhetoric to declare from the stage that "tomorrow is a chance to send a clear message to the America-hating left."
Should Bishop defeat Democrat Dan McCready, it could give Trump room to assert that he pulled Bishop over the top. If McCready prevails or Bishop wins by a whisker, it will suggest GOP erosion and raise questions about Trump's and his party's viability for 2020.
Shortly after Trump's rally, McCready launched a late fund-raising appeal, saying Trump and his allies "scheduled this rally to rile up support for my opponent and increase Republican turnout....The GOP is terrified of losing this race."
While the stakes for the House are high, Trump's trademark rallies inevitably become more about him than the local candidate, as he uses the stage to settle political scores, sharpen attacks and take on perceived foes. With an eye to his own reelection next fall, he touted his administration's accomplishments but also urged voters to give him more time.
"That's why we need four more years," Trump said at the nearly 90-minute rally. "It's got to seed - it's a plant. It has to grow. It has to grow those roots. That's why 2020 is just as important. Because they will try to take it away."
Trump's appearance Monday emerged as a test of the Republican president's pull with voters. The special election could offer clues about the mindset of Republicans in the suburbs, whose flight from the party fueled the GOP's 2018 House election losses.
The president enjoys wide popularity within his own party, but a GOP defeat in a red-leaning state could portend trouble for his reelection campaign. But before leaving Washington, Trump dismissed questions of whether a poor result for the Republican candidate would serve as a warning sign in next year's elections.
"No, I don't see it as a bellwether," Trump said.
After a light rally schedule of late, the president had plenty of new material to work with.
Chief among them was the White House's worries about the impact an economic downturn could have on a president who has made a strong economy his central argument for a second term. Trump advisers worry that moderate Republican and independent voters who have been willing to give him a pass on some of his incendiary policies and rhetoric would blame him - and, in particular, his trade war with China - for slowing down the economy.
Trump offered up a robust defense of the trade war with Beijing. He pushed for Congress to approve his new U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade deal. And he exaggerated the number of miles constructed on his promised border wall.
Monday's rally was held just over 100 miles (160 kilometers) from the site of a Trump rally in July where "send her back" chants aimed at a Somali-born American congresswoman rattled the Republican Party and seemed to presage an ugly reelection campaign.
The chant was not heard Monday.
Instead, Trump repeatedly painted the Democrats as a party that has moved to the extreme left on issues like immigration, abortion and health care.
"You don't have any choice. You have to vote for me," Trump told the crowd. "What are you going to do: Put one of these crazy people running? They are so far left."
"Your way of life is under assault by these people," he claimed.
Trump also expressed his support for the Second Amendment against the backdrop of a recent spate of deadly mass shootings across the country. It comes as congressional Democrats push for expanded background checks for gun purchases and as Trump has flip-flopped on the issue amid pressure from the National Rifle Association.
In the hours before the rally, Trump flew to coastal North Carolina to inspect the damage left by Hurricane Dorian, but bad weather forced officials to scrap those plans. Instead, he received a briefing on Air Force One, where Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper told him three deaths are connected to the storm and some 3,500 people are without power.
Many of the president's comments about the storm have been defending his erroneous claim that Alabama was likely to face significant impact from it. Trump did not mention the matter at Monday's rally.
The House district flows eastward from the prosperous Charlotte suburbs into rural areas hugging the South Carolina border. State officials invalidated last November's election following allegations of voter fraud by a GOP operative.
The district has been held by the GOP since 1963. In 2016, Trump won the district by 11 percentage points.
"This will tell us if Trump can carry candidates through suburban districts or not," said Sarah Chamberlain, president of the Republican Main Street Partnership, which represents moderate Republicans. If not, she said, the GOP must "work harder to address the concerns of suburban individuals, mainly women."
Marshville residents Philip and Diane Ezzell, both 70, were near the front of the line Monday waiting to enter the Trump rally. Both attributed their support for Bishop to his backing by Trump. "We like his values, and he supports Trump," Diane Ezzell said. "And we don't want no socialist clowns."
That was a reference to a TV spot by Bishop superimposing the faces of McCready and other prominent Democrats on swaying clown figures.
Cynthia Brown, of Fayetteville, 50, is also attending the rally. Brown, who is black, said supporting Trump has been "a pretty lonely experience" for her. She added: "But that's OK. I'm not a follower."