In this edition: The 2024 campaign kicks off, Tom Cotton talks and new swing-state polls show Biden entering the weekend with a lead.

The only newsletter that volunteered to head to the coldest swing states, even as the candidates headed to Arizona and Texas: This is The Trailer.

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — The invocation came first, then a speech by the local candidate for Congress, then one by the governor, then — with a Hatch Act-friendly disclaimer — some remarks by the secretary of agriculture. Then the riff of Ted Nugent's “Stranglehold” echoed through the War Memorial auditorium, and out walked Donald Trump Jr., as more than 200 mostly maskless Republican stood and cheered.

“Oh, we're going to make so many liberals cry on November 3!” said the president's oldest son. “Oh, it's going to be beautiful!”

For 37 minutes, pacing the stage like a stand-up comic, Trump Jr. mocked the media, urged the audience to watch a damaging story about Hunter Biden on Fox News, asked how many people had been censored on social media — a few dozen hands shot up — and reminisced about a pre-Christmas rally his father held in the same venue five years ago. 

“He's got the same kind of energy, the same kind of vision, and the same kind of expertise,” said Carole Martin, 72, when the rally was over. “He's got his dad's sense of humor.” When she got close to him on the rope line, she said two words: “Junior 2024.”

Trump Jr. was there to reelect his father. To some Republicans, he was already looking credible as a candidate who could carry on Trump's legacy in the next election. And he had company, from Republicans with more traditional political backgrounds, who have already started stumping in Iowa or giving checks to local candidates, praising the president's successes, and previewing how they, too, could make liberals furious.

“Democrats didn't have the power to stop the [Amy Coney Barrett] nomination,” Sen. Tom Cotton (Ark.) told conservative activists near Des Moines at a Wednesday morning breakfast Q&A. “They didn't have much power to delay it. They had the power to annoy us. But that's what Democratic senators do most of the time anyway.”

Cotton, who is headed for a landslide reelection next week, had been coming to Iowa for years. So had former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley, who campaigned here last week with Sen. Joni Ernst. So had Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who told a crowd of Iowa social conservatives this summer that “the University of Iowa is my mother-in-law's alma mater,” before touting the Trump administration's record on fighting for “religious liberty” around the world. So, obviously, had Vice President Pence, who flew into Des Moines on Thursday — his sixth visit to the state this year.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem had keynoted a party dinner in Council Bluffs; Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.) had joined Ernst on a bus tour; Sens. Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.) had maxed out donations to Ashley Hinson, the Republican running for Congress in Cedar Rapids. And in January, Sen. Rick Scott had run ads attacking Joe Biden, introducing himself to Iowans a full four years before any of them would be picking a Trump successor. 

Some of them may not run for president. None of the politicians had supported Trump in 2015, when he lost the state's caucuses to Cruz. All of them were true believers now, defending Trump's record and warning of a nightmare if he wasn't reelected. Outside of Iowa, they were stopping in places that the president himself wasn't necessarily popular, as Haley did in a weekend swing through Philadelphia's suburbs, emphasizing Trump's foreign policy record and warning that a Democratic takeover of Washington could undo it.

“I'm the wife of a combat veteran,” Haley said in Honey Creek, Pa., on Sunday. “We were giving a billion dollars in aid to Pakistan. Pakistan was harboring terrorists that were trying to kill our soldiers. We don't give that billion dollars to Pakistan anymore. The president laid down a marker. Did it make some of our friends mad? Yes, it was tough love. It was always about speaking truth to power.”

In interviews with Republicans voters, around Iowa and around Haley's stops in Pennsylvania, opinions generally fit into two categories. Some thought that Trump had been a fantastic president but that the party could appeal to more voters with a softer tone. The rest thought that Trump had been a fantastic president and that the party didn't need to change a thing — the president's haters, especially in the media, couldn't be reasoned with. Noem, who'd gotten conservative media's attention by reviving the July 4 fireworks display at Mount Rushmore, had focused particularly on how her state rejected the strictest pandemic limitations on business, just as the president was urging states to do.

“You’re living under some bad leadership from your governor’s office,” Noem said during a swing through Minnesota, criticizing Gov. Tim Walz (D). “In South Dakota, we never once shut down any business.”

Some, but not all, of these Republicans had fans already. Pence was universally respected, though some activists wondered whether he could transfer Trump's magic into his own campaign. Haley, talked about for years as a potential candidate for president, found herself repeatedly signing copies of her memoir and politely thanking the people who shouted “2024!” as their camera phones snapped.

“When I was reading her book, I was like: This is the next evolution of the Republican Party,” said Kim Bedillion, 53, a paralegal who saw Haley, whose parents migrated from India, at an “Indians for Trump” event 30 minutes from Philadelphia; it was held, coincidentally, at a wedding venue called The Presidential. “This is somebody who speaks her mind on controversial issues. When she was governor, and had that issue with the Confederate flag on the state Capitol, she had a way of bringing people together, empathizing, making changes that needed to be changed. But she was still a very strong woman, a very opinionated woman.” 

Haley's speeches were overwhelmingly positive, barely mentioning Biden at all, talking more about socialism taking root if any Democrat won. That was one dividing line, already, in how Republicans were reaching voters at these vents. Haley completely ignored the accusations levied against Hunter Biden, the president's son, which had burned up conservative media for days before her events but had no corroboration outside of it. Trump Jr. spent roughly 12 of his 37 minutes onstage going into the details of the accusations, urging Republicans to watch that night's Fox News prime time to see a former Biden business partner accuse him of corruption and excoriating the rest of the media for not covering the scandal.

“All of the things they accused Donald Trump of doing, or Ivanka, Hunter Biden was doing times 1,000!” Trump Jr. said, using shorthand to go back over the years-long probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election and its key players. “I take it personally. I spent 30 hours in front of various committees, like the Senate ‘Intelligence’ Committee. House Intelligence. Senate Judiciary Committee. Thirty hours of testimony, just hoping I said something wrong. I won’t get the same benefit that the [Andrew] McCabes and the [John] Brennans of the world got, people who lied to Congress about spying on Americans. They got jobs with CNN, to keep lying, for years.

Cotton, like Haley, avoided those topics entirely. At his Wednesday appearance at the Machine Shed in suburban Des Moines, an emcee rattled off his biography — "Army Ranger,” “bronze star,” “Harvard Law graduate,” “on President Trump's shortlist for the Supreme Court” — and Cotton derided “all the so-called experts” who warned that the Middle East would burn if Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and affirmed the country's sovereignty over the Golan Heights. He talked most about China, praising Trump for seeing “our most challenging adversary” clearly. At one point, former Iowa governor Terry Branstad, fresh off a stint as ambassador to China, handed Cotton the microphone to discuss how the country stole American intellectual property.

“It's not just the kind of things you might have thought about in terms of the military sense, of missiles or things like that,” Cotton said. “It's quantum computing, or artificial intelligence, or agricultural technology, things that China views as essential to its security and its prosperity.”

It was an issue that animated Cotton; like Florida's Rick Scott, he'd used campaign funds to buy anti-Biden ads this year, attacking the Democrat's advocacy for free trade with China. His audience craved more red meat. At the breakfast, Cotton was asked if he had “any knowledge of the Clintons or the Bidens transferring any of our technology to China and any of their dealings with China in the past.”  

Later, as he joined former congressman David Young for a get-out-the-vote canvass, a volunteer said that “everything should stop” in the wake of former Hunter Biden business associate Tony Bobulinski's interview on Fox News, the one Trump Jr. had told his audience to watch; she asked why Biden was not “in jail,” and whether the senator could call the FBI. Both times, Cotton said that Biden needed to provide answers; then, quickly as possible, returned to the existential threat he'd been emphasizing for years.

“I think the president is taking care of that with his rallies and his Twitter megaphone,” he said. Earlier, over an oatmeal breakfast, he'd argued that there was a more compelling case for confronting China, the one he was trying to make.

“I think Joe Biden should answer the questions being raised,” Cotton said, “but in the end, I think most Americans probably care more about their family than they care about the Biden family, and the impact that Chinese malevolence has had on their families; this year, most obviously because they are the source of this plague that's afflicted us.” 

Trump had made that argument four years ago, slicing through the old Democratic coalition in the Midwest. Until next week, neither Cotton nor anyone else knew what would happen next: whether they would be shaping policies under a second Trump administration, sent back into the political wilderness, or holding the Senate majority as a bulwark against a Biden administration's agenda. Reelecting Ernst, Cotton emphasized, was the cause that kept bringing him to Iowa. 

On Tuesday night, Ernst was just across state lines, joining the president for a rally in Omaha. The president's oldest son didn't talk much about her race in Cedar Rapids, focusing on his father's accomplishments, how he was battling both the media and a “socialist, Marxist” opposition, how Sen. Kamala D. Harris was a “phony,” and how his father had raised his children to work hard and build big things.

“Donald Trump has fought for you for four years,” Trump Jr. said. “Let's fight for him! Let's win! And we can not only make America great again — we can make liberals cry again!”

Reading list

Why the coronavirus looms over the race.

How Jeff Van Drew's zealous conversion could cost him.

All eyes on protests in a swing-state city.

The fight to throw Democratic-leaning ballots in the garbage.

“In search of healing,” by Gene Weingarten

Getting ready for the post-election infighting.

The benefits of Republicans' long voter outreach program.

How the president's tone has changed, as the polls haven't.

How many fans of the president didn't vote in 2016? The campaign is looking for all of them.

The future of the president's favorite network.

On the trail

URBANDALE, Iowa — Between his Wednesday morning stops in Iowa, Sen. Tom Cotton (Ark.) sat down to talk about his work for Republicans this cycle and what he thought Republicans should focus on in the final weeks. A transcript, edited for length and clarity, is below.

The Trailer: When you bought ads in swing states this year, you focused on China and Biden's record. But I'm hearing less of that from the Trump campaign than I did a few months ago. Is that a mistake?

Tom Cotton: I've seen the president start to raise it more in rallies. And it's something that I usually mention when I'm on the campaign trail, whether I'm with Steve Daines in Montana or John James in Michigan or Kelly Loeffler in Georgia. But it's on so many Americans' minds, and has been for a long time. It's one of those issues where there's a big disconnect between normal Americans and the political establishment, in both parties, and it varies from place to place. You heard it today, someone asked about Chinese investment in American agriculture companies. I've heard people ask about the persecution of religious minorities. I heard someone ask about building the military outpost in the South China Sea. In Arkansas, we have Chinese nationals under indictment for stealing rice genomes. So a lot of, a lot of Americans have a lot of reasons to be skeptical of China, of the status quo, going back 20 years.

TT: You brought up Philadelphia here. The Democratic message on unrest has been: Look, Donald Trump is president right now, and Joe Biden is a healing figure who's going to hug people and listen to people. The public polling suggests that people take Biden's side. Do you believe that?

TC: I don't. I think the American people believe that you need to take crime seriously and you need to nip it in the bud. Some of these prosecutors have been elected in places like Philadelphia or Arlington County or San Francisco are in no small part responsible for either the rioting and looting you see in Philadelphia. They refuse to prosecute what is sometimes called lifestyle crimes. And as we've seen time and again in the last 30 years, the way to stop serious crime is to take all crimes seriously, because most criminals have a pretty long rap sheet and have a lot of criminal tendencies. If they can get away with fare jumping, or they can get away with carrying a firearm where they shouldn't be. They think they can get away with robbery and assault and rape and murder. 

There's no doubt that Donald Trump and his Department of Justice will take this threat more seriously. They've used the tools available to them. I think it's pretty clear what the Biden-Harris Justice Department would do. They'd what they did in the late Obama years: Basically blame the police first, put pressure on them to negotiate consent decrees, to give up on practices that can be effective, can help stop crime before it gets out of control.

TT: There was a point in the summer when if you turned on the TV in swing states, you could see an ad warning of riots under Joe Biden, then touting how Trump passed criminal justice reform while Biden passed the 1994 Crime Bill. So was the First Step Act a help or a hindrance in making that sale?

TC: I would look at it from the impact it has on the lives of normal Americans first. And regrettably, I think that in the long term, there's going to be serious crimes committed by people who are out of prison that would otherwise be in prison. That's the main reason I opposed the First Step Act. It had some worthwhile provisions. In my opinion, it still let out too many prisoners with too many serious offenses.

I mean, I've heard this in Arkansas. I've increasingly heard it over the last two or three months that I've been on the campaign trail in places like Iowa, like Montana, Colorado, like Georgia. Law enforcement's morale is pretty low right now, given the criticism they face, in many cases, unjustified criticism they face from the media as soon as there's an officer-involved shooting. You see a 15-second snippet on social media without any idea of what happened before those 15 seconds or after those 15 seconds.

TT: How do you prevent that or un-ring that bell? Everyone has cellphone cameras.

TC: I would suggest that elected officials should always remind everyone that mob justice is no justice at all. And no matter what a 15-second video looks like on social media, there's a story to be told about what happened beforehand or what happened afterward, and that there's usually more than one side of that story and that we should wait to allow, you know, regular course of justice to take its course and that if police officers, like any person, have acted inappropriately, if they've committed a crime, they should be held accountable.

TT: We're in Iowa, so I need to ask about your political future, and whether you're thinking about running for president.

TC: Iowa's the center of the political universe. And that's not just because they have caucuses every four years. This year it really is the center of the universe. You have a very competitive presidential election, and I don't think the president can get to 270 without these six electoral votes. We will not hold 51 seats in the Senate, I don't think, if Joni Ernst doesn't win. And we have three very competitive House races. That's not just about controlling the House. It's about controlling the House delegation as well, which is one of the things that Nancy Pelosi has been trying to do: Flip delegations in case there's a contested electoral count in the House. So one reason why I'm here for the second time is that there is so much at stake.

Ad watch

Let's Get to Work PAC, “Don't Give Up.” Sen. Rick Scott (Fla.), who is not facing voters again until 2024, began using his campaign funds to buy anti-Biden ads before the Iowa caucuses. Back then, they attacked the Democrat over unfounded allegations that he leaned on Ukraine's then-president to help his son Hunter; this commercial, running in Florida now, insists that Biden would be a figurehead for a “radical plan” to defund police departments and abolish private health insurance. “Joe Biden might not even be aware of it,” he says, something that could be understood as a hint that the nominee may be senile, an attack he deployed against the Democrat he narrowly defeated to join the Senate.

America First Action Super PAC, “Blatant Lie.” The Trump campaign has urged the media to cover allegations of self-dealing by the Biden family but not cycled them into paid advertising, which remains focused on taxes and crime. But this pro-Trump group has boiled down the interview a would-be business partner of Hunter Biden gave to Fox News on Tuesday into 30 seconds. “They knew exactly what they were doing,” says Tony Bobulinski as unrelated footage of Joe Biden on an official visit to China plays in the background. “They were dealing with a Chinese-owned enterprise.” The rub: It's not clear what the scandal is without further research.

Poll watch

Presidential election in Michigan (Washington Post-ABC News, 789 likely voters)

Joe Biden: 51%
President Trump: 44%
Jo Jorgensen: 3%

The Post's first look at this swing state finds the same situation that local pollsters have: weak support from seniors putting a ceiling on the president's support. Four years ago, he won voters over 65 by four points; he trails Biden with that demographic by 12 points now. One explanation: 74 percent of all voters say they are personally worried about themselves or someone in their family will contract covid-19. Biden's support with non-White voters is identical to Hillary Clinton's in 2016, but Trump's lead with White voters has fallen from 21 points to eight points. 

Presidential election in Wisconsin (Marquette Law, 749 likely voters)

Joe Biden: 48% (+1)
President Trump: 43% (+1)
Jo Jorgensen: 2% (-2)

The final edition of Wisconsin's marquee pollster was, famously, wrong four years ago. But it did not miss Clinton's support. It pegged her at 46 percent; she got 47 percent. She lost as undecided voters broke either for Trump or for third-party candidates. Biden's lead here is right outside the margin of error, and when pushed by the pollster to make up their minds, undecided voters get the Democrat to 50 percent.

Presidential election in Pennsylvania (Franklin & Marshall, 558 likely voters)

Joe Biden: 50% (+2)
President Trump: 44% (+2)

Polling in the Keystone State has not budged since the first debate, despite some Republican hopes that an issue like fracking, or transitioning from fossil fuels to clean energy, or unrest in Philadelphia, could win back some suburban and exurban White voters. By five points, voters say Biden would outdo Trump on “keeping communities safe," and by 19 points they prefer Biden's approach on “issues related to race.”

Presidential election in Florida (Monmouth, 509 registered voters)

Joe Biden: 50% (-)
President Trump: 45% (-)
Jo Jorgensen: 1% (-1)

Democratic nervousness is powerful in Florida, where a string of elections have broken for Republicans by less than one point, even as the party thought it was closing out with a lead: By eight points, voters expect Trump to win the presidency again. Twenty percent of liberals think he will, to just 8 percent of conservatives. Nothing else has shifted, though Biden's lead with Latino voters is comparable to the one Clinton pulled out in 2016. Few other pollsters have seen that, but Biden's strength with White voters gives him a cushion: He's slashed Trump's lead with them from 32 points to 14 points here.

Presidential election in North Carolina (NYT-Siena, 1,034 likely voters)

Joe Biden: 48% (+2)
President Trump: 45% (+3)
Jo Jorgensen: 2% (-)
Howie Hawkins: 1% (-)

Every race in the state has remained relatively tight, with a Democratic advantage, despite wildly different candidate profiles: Gov. Roy Cooper has retained high approval ratings since the start of the pandemic, while Senate nominee Cal Cunningham saw his favorable numbers tumble after the exposure of his extramarital affair. The trends are the same for every Republican: softer support with White women and suburbanites who backed Republicans four years ago.

Presidential election in Georgia (Monmouth, 504 registered voters)

Joe Biden: 50% (+4)
President Trump: 45% (-2)
Jo Jorgensen: 2% (-2)

Worried Democrats were skeptical when Biden made a stop in Georgia this week, with visions of Clinton's decision to stick to an “expansion state” schedule in the final days of the 2016 campaign, rather than focus on the key Midwest states — and, famously, never making a return trip to Wisconsin. But private and public polls show a path for Biden, with demographics the party has been trying to get right for years: overwhelming support from non-White voters, and around 30 percent of White voters. 

Candidate tracker

President Trump continues to crisscross the country, with airline hangar rallies in larger cities, many on turf carried by Clinton four years ago. He scrapped a North Carolina rally tonight because of weather; he'll be in Oakland County, Mich.; Brown County, Wis.; and Olmstead County, Minn.; tomorrow. Only Brown County, home to the Green Bay Packers, backed him in 2016, and Trump spent some time at his Wednesday evening rally near Phoenix to criticize The Washington Post's poll that found him down by 17 points in Wisconsin. And he'll spend all of Saturday in Pennsylvania. 

The message has swung wildly from moment to moment, but the president has consistently accused the press of covering up potentially campaign-ending information about Joe Biden and of running bad polls that make him look like he's losing.

“They had me 12 down a week before the election, right? Remember that, I was 12 down?” Trump said at his Wednesday evening stop near Phoenix. “We sent them a legal letter and by the time we got to the election, we were even. I wonder what happened. But they interviewed slightly more Democrats and Republicans. We looked at it. I think there’s some kind of a law that you have to do that. They interviewed a few more, a number that you wouldn’t even believe.”

Biden is closing out with his busiest schedule since the end of the Democratic primary: Friday car rallies in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin, and a reunion rally with former president Barack Obama in Michigan on Saturday. On Wednesday, he tried to short-circuit any controversy around unrest in Philadelphia, following the fatal police shooting of Walter Wallace Jr., by condemning looting and urging Philadelphians to listen to Wallace's family.

“There is no excuse whatsoever for the looting and the violence,” Biden said after casting an early vote in Wilmington, Del. “None whatsoever.”

Vice President Pence is spending Friday at rallies across Arizona; Kamala D. Harris is rallying in Democratic strongholds across Texas, from the megacities of Dallas and Houston to McAllen, in the Rio Grande Valley, where early turnout has lagged other parts of the state.

Countdown

… five days until the general election
… 37 days until runoffs in Louisiana 
… 46 days until the electoral college votes 
… 68 days until runoffs in Georgia 
… 83 days until the inauguration