President Trump heads to Alabama on Saturday for the most hotly anticipated regular season college football game in years, where he will seek relief from the bruising impeachment fight and redemption from a pair of recent outings to sporting events where he was publicly booed.
Trump rarely ventures out into open settings beyond his own properties or White House or campaign events. But he will be in the stands in Tuscaloosa when Alabama hosts Louisiana State University (LSU), the third time in as many weeks that the president has attended a major sporting event.
He was vigorously booed by fans at Nationals Park during Game 5 of the World Series and endured more jeers when he arrived at a mixed martial arts match in New York last weekend.
But in reliably red Alabama with fans visiting from Louisiana, two states that voted overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016, the president is likely to receive the adulation he is seeking.
"Presumably a college football crowd in Alabama is going to be a friendlier audience and an audience that’s kind of his base in that part of the country," said Guian McKee, an associate professor of presidential studies at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia.
"There is a little bit of a risk here," McKee added. "It is a college town, and if he gets booed at that game it sort of deepens the problem for him."
Brent Buchanan, a national Republican pollster from Alabama, predicted a rapturous welcome for Trump at the game, which is scheduled to begin at 2:30 p.m. local time.
Trump is not expected to attend any other events while in the area and appears to be making the trip simply as a fan.
“I’m actually going to the game,” Trump told supporters at a rally in Louisiana on Wednesday. “I said, 'that’s a game I want to go to.' That'll be tremendous. Two great teams.”
The No. 2-ranked LSU Tigers and Alabama Crimson Tide, No. 3, are both powerhouses in the West Division of the Southeastern Conference who are seen as potential national title contenders this year. The two teams, whose bitter rivalry dates back to the 19th century, have played each other more than 80 times.
The last president to attend such a high-profile regular season college football game was Richard Nixon, who in 1969 was in the stands when No. 1 Texas played No. 2 Arkansas.
Politics may hover over the brief trip, however.
Jeff Sessions’s bid to recapture his old Senate seat in Alabama has drummed up considerable interest, particularly given Trump's well-documented animus toward his own former attorney general.
Former Auburn University coach Tommy Tuberville, who is also seeking the GOP nomination in that Senate race, is expected to be in Tuscaloosa on Saturday and may try and meet with Trump, his campaign said.
A protest is scheduled to take place Saturday morning near campus, and the famous "Baby Trump" balloon may make an appearance.
Trump is an avid sports fan. He tweets about sports from time to time; he has awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to multiple retired athletes in recent months; he previously owned the New Jersey Generals of the U.S. Football League and has hosted major golf tournaments; and he attended last year's the Army-Navy game, as well as the first half of the 2018 college football championship.
But the past two sporting events Trump attended have not produced favorable images.
The president late last month sat in a luxury box for Game 5 of the World Series in Washington. Nationals ownership indicated they did not invite the president personally, and when Trump and a cohort of Republican lawmakers were shown on the screen the crowd unleashed a torrent of boos.
Last weekend, Trump was joined by Republican lawmakers and his adult sons at a mixed martial arts match. When the president and his entourage walked into Madison Square Garden, he was again heckled, though others greeted him with cheers.
The Republican National Committee (RNC) reportedly paid for Trump to attend both events.
"I think it was probably initially that relatively personal assessment, ‘I just want to go,’” McKee said Trump's appearance at the World Series game. "But when it didn’t go well, what we know about President Trump is he’s very sensitive to criticism or any kind of negative public reception. So we’re in this compensation cycle of where he can find a friendly audience."
While he was booed in the liberal havens of D.C. and New York, Trump is likely to be safe from criticism in Alabama.
He remarked Friday morning that he has strong poll numbers in the state, and the university appears ready to embrace his attendance.
“Well, it’s an honor, I think, that the president of the United States would be interested enough to come to the game,” current Alabama and former LSU head coach Nick Saban told reporters of Trump's visit. "I’m sure we’ll do everything we can to welcome him.”
The university’s Student Government Association had warned that students could lose their seating privileges if they engaged in "disruptive behavior,” though the organization later clarified it did not intend to infringe on First Amendment rights amid criticism that it was seeking to quell potential protests.
In an era where "stick to sports" has become a common refrain for those who prefer to keep their entertainment separate from their politics, Trump has effectively wielded sports as a device to appeal to his supporters.
He spent months blistering the NFL for allowing players to kneel in protest of social injustice during the national anthem, at one point suggesting those demonstrating during "The Star-Spangled Banner" didn't belong in the country.
Trump has turned the traditionally apolitical White House visit by championship-winning teams into a divisive event. He has disinvited politically outspoken teams such as the Philadelphia Eagles and Golden State Warriors and sparred earlier this year with members of the U.S. Women's Soccer team during the World Cup.
McKee said there's been a tradition of presidents using sports as a unifying function, another area where Trump has broken the mold.
"There’s no past president to use sports, which is a shared interest for many Americans across political lines, and deploy them in political way," McKee said.