US president Donald Trump drew something closer to the jam-packed audience of political supporters he has been craving as he urged hundreds of young conservatives in Arizona to get behind his re-election effort.
The Students For Trump gathering at a crowded Dream City Church in Phoenix offered a starkly different feel compared to Mr Trump’s weekend rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma – his first of the coronavirus era – which drew a sparse turnout.
In Phoenix, Mr Trump hailed “patriotic young Americans who stand up tall for America and refuse to kneel to the radical left”.
He said: “You are the courageous warriors standing in the way of what they want to do and their goals.
“They hate our history. They hate our values, and they hate everything we prize as Americans.”
The US leader was looking to regain campaign momentum after Tulsa, which was supposed to be a sign of America’s reopening and a show of political force.
Instead, it generated thousands of empty seats and led to questions about the president’s campaign leadership and his case for another four years in office.
The low turnout sharpened the focus on Mr Trump’s visit to Arizona, which doubles as both a 2020 battleground state and a surging coronavirus hotspot.
With the Phoenix event, which was organised by Turning Point Action, a group chaired by Trump ally Charlie Kirk, the president hoped to turn attention away from his slumping poll numbers, surging coronavirus infections in huge swathes of the US south and west, and a virus-ravaged economy.
His address featured typical Trump lines – boasts about television ratings, ridicule of his likely Democratic presidential opponent Joe Biden, and resentment over China’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.
As he did in Oklahoma over the weekend, Mr Trump referred to the virus as “kung flu”, a pejorative term which Asian-Americans and many other people say is racist.
Mr Trump seemed to revel in the energy of a packed venue. He also offered his supporters a dark warning.
“This will be in my opinion the most corrupt election in the history of our country,” he said. “And we cannot let this happen.”
Mr Trump has in recent days stepped up claims that expanded postal voting will lead to electoral fraud.
Throughout his trip to Arizona, which included a visit to the US-Mexico border, the Covid-19 pandemic shadowed Mr Trump.
A GREAT DAY IN ARIZONA! pic.twitter.com/jsohSb5QF6— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 24, 2020
Democratic mayor of Phoenix Kate Gallego made it clear she did not believe Mr Trump’s speech could be safely held in her city – and urged the president to wear a face mask.
However, Mr Trump has adamantly refused to wear a mask in public, instead turning it into a red-vs-blue cultural issue.
Polling suggests Republicans are far less likely to wear face coverings than Democrats, despite health experts’ warnings that it dramatically reduces the risk of transmitting the virus. Few in the crowd at the Students For Trump event donned masks.
Since late May, Arizona has emerged as one of the nation’s most active hot spots for the spread of Covid-19.
Arizona is seeing disturbing trends in several benchmarks, including the percentage of tests that prove positive for the virus, which is the highest in America.
The US state reported a new daily record of nearly 3,600 additional coronavirus cases on Tuesday as it continued to set records for the number of people taken to hospital, in intensive care and on ventilators for Covid-19.
Arizona’s total caseload in the pandemic stands at at least 58,179, with 42 more deaths reported Tuesday, raising the death toll to 1,384.
Trump campaign officials believe the president’s ability to draw thousands of supporters out during a pandemic sets up a favourable contrasting image with Joe Biden.
However, the campaign has struggled to find effective attack lines on the former vice president.