MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- The last time President Donald Trump visited Wisconsin he staged a massive, raucous rally at an arena in downtown Milwaukee.
When he returns Thursday to the critical battleground state, he'll be reminded how much has changed since.
The Republican president will head to conservative, rural Wisconsin for a private tour of a shipyard far away from Milwaukee, where local coronavirus restrictions now prevent large rallies. He'll land a day after the governor activated the National Guard in the state capital to protect state property from angry protests against racial injustice.
When Trump last campaigned in the state in January, the unemployment rate was 3.5%; now, 12% of workers are jobless.
Trump's standing in Wisconsin appears to be suffering from the extraordinary period of turmoil, and his visit is part of a concerted effort to shore up support in friendlier areas that can make or break his reelection chances. Besides the visit to Marinette, he'll participate in a town hall to be broadcast by Fox News Channel from an airport in Green Bay. The trip comes days after he dispatched Vice President Mike Pence to the conservative Milwaukee suburbs.
The two parts of Wisconsin targeted by Trump this week — suburban Milwaukee and the Green Bay media market in northeast Wisconsin — are areas where he needs to run up a big vote advantage in November.
Some polls have suggested Trump has ground to make up in Wisconsin, including a Marquette University Law School poll released Wednesday that showed Democrat Joe Biden with an 8 percentage point lead over Trump. Trump trailed Democrat Hillary Clinton in nearly every poll conducted in Wisconsin in 2016 — often by similar margins — before he went on to eke out a victory in the state by fewer than 23,000 votes.
Marinette County helped deliver that win. Trump carried the county, which sits about 170 miles (275 kilometers) north of Milwaukee along the shores of Lake Michigan's Green Bay, with 65% of the vote.
Unlike Trump's rally in Oklahoma last weekend and his visit to a Phoenix megachurch Tuesday, his tour of the Fincantieri Marinette Marine shipyard is not open to the public. He will speak to 500 to 600 people inside the shipyard, all of whom will be required to wear masks, the shipbuilder's spokesperson Eric Dent said in an email.
Trump, who generally refuses to cover his face, will not, Dent said.
“We are not asking or requiring the president to wear a mask, as we are going to go to great lengths to give him the appropriate social distance,” he said.
Marinette has not been a hotbed of the virus, with just a few dozen cases and three deaths. Thirteen employees at the shipbuilder have tested positive for COVID-19, but they have all recovered and are now back to work, Dent said. Everyone who enters the facility is now screened, he said.
Trump’s appearance gives him a chance to score points with blue-collar workers who know the importance of the shipbuilder to the region’s economy, said John Nygren, a Republican member of the state Assembly who was born and raised in Marinette.
“Granted, Trump is not traditional in a lot of ways, but it’s a great opportunity from a working-class standpoint to show Republicans can stand up for them,” Nygren said.
Trump will tout a contract won in April by Fincantieri Marinette Marine to build up to 10 Navy frigates. The shipbuilder plans to invest $200 million to expand the Marinette facility because of the contract. The company employs about 2,500 people now, and the deal could add 1,000 jobs and be worth $5.6 billion if all the ships are built. It’s the first new major shipbuilding program for the Navy in more than a decade.
Trump will use the visit to illustrate his commitment to bolstering national defense and make the point that “economic security is national security,” said White House spokesperson John Horstman.
Democrats used the moment to highlight the fallout from the virus, including double-digit unemployment, as well as Republicans' continued push to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
“Wisconsin families deserve strong, honest leadership to bring us together and help our country recover,” Biden campaign spokesperson Sean Higgins said. "But Trump is unprepared to meet the moment.”
Visiting a Navy shipbuilder shortly before the July Fourth holiday gives Trump the chance to show both his support for the military and what it means to be a patriotic American, Nygren said. That message is especially important to give during a time “when we’re dealing with a lot of divisions,” he added.
Trump’s visit to Marinette is believed to be the first time a sitting president has come to the city. Then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy campaigned in Marinette in 1960, when he gave a speech on the importance of loans for farmers. Pence was at the same Marinette shipyard in November to tout Trump’s trade deal with Mexico and Canada.