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President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Tulsa, Okla., June 20, 2020. Trump demoted his campaign manager, high-profile supporters are openly questioning his reelection message, and he risks losing the confidence of voters across the political spectrum because of his erratic leadership during the pandemic.

Campaigning in America's year of crisis

For now, the 2020 election is a referendum on President Trump. But as November nears, the race will morph into a choice – and trust on handling the pandemic and its impacts may well be the decider.

Dear reader:

Ideally, under normal circumstances, presidential campaigns are about ideas. Taxes – up or down? How should health care be delivered and paid for? What about education?

But 2020 is no normal election cycle. And when you’re the sitting president, painting a vision for the future may seem irrelevant during a national crisis. When you’re the challenger, presenting your ideas – including an approach to the pandemic – is Step 1. But you also have to convince voters that you’re up to the task, then motivate “your” voters to turn out – especially those in battleground states.

For now, the 2020 race is a referendum on President Donald Trump. But as Ari Fleischer, former press secretary for President George W. Bush, told me in April, by Election Day the race will morph into a choice. It always does, he said.

Now the choices are becoming clearer, and the outcome may well boil down to this: Who do voters believe can best address the pandemic and its impacts come Inauguration Day 2021? We don’t know where the situation will be by then, but we know it will still be front and center.

Unlike Democratic nominee Joe Biden, President Trump is standing for election and dealing with the pandemic simultaneously. Fairly or not, he will face blame on Nov. 3 and likely defeat if enough Americans decide he has failed. Last Friday, my Monitor colleagues made clear in this story that COVID-19 would have been devastating under any U.S. president. But, they write, failures of leadership – both at the White house and elsewhere – are also to blame.

“We basically blew it,” says epidemiologist Kenneth Bernard, who ran the office on global health threats in the Clinton and second Bush White Houses.

In recent weeks, when asked for his second term agenda, Mr. Trump hasn’t offered much detail. In a way, that's understandable. The overwhelmingly dominant issues today are the pandemic and the economy, and it's impossible to know now where they will stand come January.

Mr. Trump is counting on his strong economic record, pre-pandemic, to help him in November. In the view of his supporters, he built a strong economy once and he can do it again. But yesterday, the president's usual optimism about the virus flagged.

The pandemic "will probably, unfortunately, get worse before it gets better," Mr. Trump said in his first coronavirus briefing since April.

How soon the caseload "curve" can be flattened may well determine who wins in November – and who gets to carry the ball forward during unprecedented times.

Let us know what you’re thinking at csmpolitics@csmonitor.com.

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