Trump, Facing Headwinds in Ohio, Talks Up Economy in Campaign Swing

President Trump traveled Thursday to the crucial battleground of Ohio, hoping to highlight efforts to bolster the economy after the damage done by the spread of the coronavirus and to announce new executive orders to make drug prices more affordable.

But he could not escape the reality of the landscape he is facing: Before Mr. Trump arrived, the state’s Republican governor, Mike DeWine, tested positive for the coronavirus during a routine screening for people meeting the president.

The sudden change in plans — Mr. DeWine, 73, had been expected to greet Mr. Trump at the airport when the president arrived — mirrored the president’s shifting fortunes in a state that coming into 2020 had seemed unassailable on Mr. Trump’s electoral map. After a second, different type of test on Thursday, Mr. DeWine came up negative.

But the failures in his response to the pandemic have changed the forecast for November in Ohio, where cases remain high. Several polls in the state have shown the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., running close to Mr. Trump.

Mr. Trump could still win in Ohio, a state that has been won by Republicans seven times since 1972 and that has been a strong predictor of the national winner.

But the cost in “resources, attention and manpower is likely to cost him another needed state,” said Nicholas Everhart, the president of Content Creative Media, a Republican national ad-buying firm based in Ohio. Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign has laid out tens of millions of dollars for a fall advertising blitz there.

“On Jan. 1, there was not a serious consultant on the Republican or Democrat side who thought Ohio was an up-for-grabs presidential swing state,” he said.

Mr. Everhart said that a number of factors have made the state more competitive for Democrats, even though Republicans fared relatively well there in 2018.

“The economic fallout of the pandemic, though, seems to have caught Ohio up with Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, particularly in the Columbus and Cleveland suburbs,” Mr. Everhart said, describing shifts in political support.

And a local corruption scandal that has seen federal racketeering charges filed against the Republican speaker of the House in Ohio could have a toxic effect for other Republicans in the state, Mr. Everhart said.

It is also one of a number of states where Republicans are trying to help Kanye West, the rapper and occasional Trump ally who has said he is running for president, fulfill requirements to get on the ballot, a move that many see as an effort to siphon Black votes away from Mr. Biden. Mr. West appeared to confirm this week in an interview with Forbes that he was trying to harm the former vice president.

Mr. Biden, whose advisers believe can connect with the working-class white voters who bolstered Mr. Trump in 2016, remains an elusive target for the president.

ImageProtesters on Thursday in Clyde. Several polls in Ohio have shown the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., running close to Mr. Trump.
Protesters on Thursday in Clyde. Several polls in Ohio have shown the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., running close to Mr. Trump.Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

When Mr. Trump arrived in Ohio and gave a speech to a group of supporters, he accused Mr. Biden of trying to “hurt” the Bible and “hurt” God.

“He’s against God,” Mr. Trump, who rarely attends church and has had trouble pointing to specific Bible verses that he likes, said, promptly obliterating whatever media attention his aides hoped an earlier remark that Mr. Biden had made about Black people would get. “He’s against guns. He’s against energy, our kind of energy. I don’t think he’s going to do too well in Ohio.”

The remark prompted a swift rebuke from Mr. Biden’s campaign and, hours later, from the former vice president himself.

Mr. Biden, a Catholic, described his faith as the “bedrock foundation of my life” that sustained him after he lost his first wife and daughter in a car accident, and later, his adult son Beau Biden to cancer.

“For President Trump to attack my faith is shameful,” Mr. Biden said, calling it “beneath the office he holds.” He added that the attacks “show us a man willing to stoop to any low for political gain, and someone whose actions are completely at odds with the values and teachings that he professes to believe in.”

Mr. Trump maintained that Mr. Biden frequently is confused about his whereabouts, during a speech in which the president mispronounced Thailand as “Thighland,” catching himself a short time later.

The president spoke as his aides struggled to get a deal for new legislation to help people suffering economic pain caused by the coronavirus, something Mark Meadows, his chief of staff, and Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, have been scrambling to achieve in negotiations with Democratic leaders. Mr. Trump has not been a meaningful part of the talks, preferring to comment from the sidelines. After a fund-raiser on Thursday evening in Ohio, he will head to his private club in New Jersey and has fund-raisers scheduled this weekend.

Mr. Trump’s swing through Ohio took him to Clyde, where he toured a Whirlpool factory. The president wore a mask as he walked through the plant, giving a thumbs-up sign to photographers nearby, a notable move given his longstanding resistance to the masks until the past few weeks. Mr. DeWine has been a proponent of masks; he issued a statewide order requiring them last month.

Then, standing at a lectern with the presidential seal, his face glistening with sweat, Mr. Trump delivered a winding series of remarks that were ostensibly about trade and the economy, but that took several detours into criticizing Mr. Biden and complaining about his political lot in life.

“I had such a beautiful life before I did this,” Mr. Trump said at one point.

The president’s inability to stick to his script has infuriated and exasperated his advisers, who believe he could be in a much stronger position in the campaign if only he would stop creating so much content for his critics and opponent.

During the event, Mr. Trump announced his plan to reimpose tariffs on Canadian-made aluminum. He criticized Mr. Biden and former President Barack Obama as purveyors of “broken promises and brazen sellouts and lost jobs.”

He insisted the job outlook would improve soon, despite the sharp rise in unemployment when the pandemic began and the continued elevated levels of new claims for jobless benefits — developments that have undercut his ability to claim he has delivered on his promises of four years ago to restore American manufacturing might and middle-class opportunity.

He praised the economy that existed before the arrival of the virus. And he lauded his administration’s response to the coronavirus despite polling suggesting that voters are displeased with his repeated playing down of the threat.

He talked up an executive order requiring the federal government to buy “essential” drugs from within the United States, instead of countries like China, where the coronavirus originated. And he maintained there could be a vaccine “long before the end of the year,” despite skepticism from the health experts in his administration and concern among regulators about pressure to approve a vaccine on a political calendar.

And a day after Facebook and Twitter forced his campaign accounts to remove video of him falsely saying that children are “almost immune” to the virus, he simply cited children as “strong” in fighting off the illness.

At another point, after frequently criticizing Democratic governors, he said, “We cannot defeat the virus by fighting against each other.”