President TrumpDonald TrumpTexas announces election audit in four counties after Trump demand Schumer sets Monday showdown on debt ceiling-government funding bill Pennsylvania AG sues to block GOP subpoenas in election probe MORE is headed to Florida on Friday for a rally that appears aimed at boosting Alabama GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore’s chances in a special election next week.
The trip to Pensacola, Fla. — just 20 miles away from the Alabama border — may have initially been scheduled to give Trump a way to rally the Republican base in Alabama while keeping some distance from Moore, who is accused of sexual misconduct, including assault, involving teenagers.
But Trump explicitly endorsed Moore this week, calling the candidate directly to offer his support.
“What this is is President Trump signaling to his base, to his ‘Deplorables,’ that he still has their back,” said one Republican strategist who supports Trump.
“Have you ever known President Trump to go half-in?”
Trump’s decision to stand beside Moore, who is not expected to attend the Florida rally, was a long time coming.
White House officials initially condemned the alleged sexual misconduct and kept their distance, with White House counselor Kellyanne Conway declaring in an interview that “that there is no Senate seat worth more than a child."
But just a few days later, Conway returned to the airwaves to blast Democratic nominee Doug Jones. Without naming Moore, Conway told “Fox & Friends” that “we want the votes in the Senate to get this tax bill through.”
That set the stage for Trump himself to begin publicly inching toward the endorsement. Two weeks after Trump echoed Moore’s denials in a pre-Thanksgiving conversation with reporters, Trump tweeted out his endorsement and followed up with a call to Moore from Air Force One.
That threw Moore a lifeline right as polls showed him rebuilding his lead over Jones. Now he has Trump’s support and renewed backing from the Republican National Committee, which has sent money to the state party to support Moore’s efforts.
“If it wasn’t for Donald Trump, the White House would have stabbed him in the back,” the pro-Trump Republican strategist said.
“The sole reason they didn’t was because the president, at the end of the day, is the boss. And he instinctively knew that was the wrong way to go.”
Alabama’s Senate race had looked like a sure thing for the Republican until last month, when The Washington Post published allegations by a woman who said that Moore touched her sexually when she was 14 years old and Moore was 32.
After that report, more allegations emerged from women who said that Moore pursued them around the same time while they were teenagers, including one woman who said Moore sexually assaulted her when she was 16 years old.
That prompted a dramatic tightening in the polls and a brief window where Jones pulled ahead of Moore in RealClearPolitics’s average of recent polls. But since Thanksgiving, when Trump began signaling a warming to Moore, the Republican’s poll numbers began to recover.
“Trump brought back some credibility for Moore, but is it the chicken or the egg?” said Jonathan Gray, a longtime Alabama Republican strategist.
“Did Trump make a comment to instill confidence in people about Roy Moore and Roy Moore’s numbers recovered? Or did Roy Moore’s numbers start recovering and the White House saw an opportunity knowing they never fully distanced himself from him?”
While Trump still remains popular with the GOP base in Alabama, his endorsement wasn’t enough to pull Sen. Luther StrangeLuther Johnson StrangePandemic proves importance of pharmaceutical innovation The Hill's Morning Report - Biden assails 'epidemic' of gun violence amid SC, Texas shootings Trump faces test of power with early endorsements MORE (R-Ala.) — who was appointed to the seat following Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsOvernight Hillicon Valley — Apple issues security update against spyware vulnerability Stanford professors ask DOJ to stop looking for Chinese spies at universities in US Overnight Energy & Environment — Democrats detail clean electricity program MORE's confirmation — over the top in his GOP primary battle against Moore. But Moore supporters believe the full-throated endorsement will have more resonance now.
The rally itself is aimed at ginning up Republican enthusiasm in the conservative strongholds, getting out the vote for an election that’s expected to have low turnout.
Republicans expect Trump to use the rally to hammer home the idea that a vote for Moore is a vote for the Trump agenda.
Gray noted that the fact that the GOP tax plan passed the Senate last week by a razor-thin margin could help convince Republicans in Alabama that Trump needs Moore’s vote in the Senate.
“When they saw that vote come out at 51-49, that’s picture perfect for the whole argument Republicans have been making in Alabama, which is, ‘You might not like the guy, you might not know if the allegations are true, but they happened 40 years ago and this is what happened last week,” he said.
“[Trump] realized in the last week that he’s blessed to have a Republican Senate and a Republican House. If he loses that in Alabama, his presidency wont accomplish anything.”