President Donald Trump’s political operation is shifting its focus to apparent Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden — and ramping up its efforts to convince Bernie Sanders’ supporters he’s being robbed of the nomination.
With Biden suddenly vaulting to the front of the Democratic pack with his array of Super Tuesday wins, Republicans are intensifying their attacks on the 77-year-old former vice president. It represents a dramatic reversal: As late as last week, many in Trump’s circle were certain that Sanders would be their general election opponent and had all but written off Biden.
The turnabout could have profound implications for Trump’s political fortunes. Many of the president’s top advisers had been relishing the idea of a match-up against Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist who threatens to alienate the affluent suburbanites who decisively swung to Democrats in 2018.
“Not only has the last 96 hours brought a seismic shift in the Democrat primary but the trajectory of the general election is now completely different,” said Sam Nunberg, a former Trump aide.
The assault on Biden is partly focused on personal matters. As the results came in Tuesday evening, the Trump political apparatus amplified a message that Trump voiced at a rally earlier in the week — that Biden’s mental faculties are diminished. The Trump campaign posted a video to its Twitter account showing Biden appearing to confuse his wife and sister during a Super Tuesday rally.
Earlier Tuesday, the Republican National Committee produced a video with footage of famous speeches from Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan. It concludes with Biden botching a line from the Declaration of Independence.
On Monday, Trump tweeted out a Fox News-produced highlight reel of Biden’s gaffes.
“WOW! Sleepy Joe doesn’t know where he is, or what he’s doing. Honestly, I don’t think he even knows what office he’s running for!” Trump wrote.
But Republicans are also preparing to go after the former vice president on ideology. While Biden has associated himself with the Democratic Party’s moderate wing, Republicans are eager to brand him as a foot soldier in a party governed by Sanders’ socialist brand of liberalism.
Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, a Trump ally who is running for reelection this year, released a commercial Tuesday evening which opens with clips of Biden, Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren. “Socialism has taken over the Democratic Party,” says the ad.
Whether the attack will stick remains unclear: Some in the party are privately skeptical that Biden can easily be painted as a flame-throwing liberal.
And then there is Ukraine. Barely a day after Biden’s South Carolina primary win, Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson threatened to issue a subpoena for records related to the work Biden’s son conducted for a Ukrainian energy company. Trump was impeached by the House last year for pressuring the Ukrainian government to investigate the Bidens over the matter.
Members of Trump’s inner circle have spent months mapping out potential match-ups against Biden and Sanders. While some are worried that Sanders could be a dynamic presence and pose a challenge in the industrial Midwestern areas that catapulted Trump to the presidency, many perceive the 78-year-old liberal as an ideal opponent.
In recent weeks, Trump has repeatedly made attacks on socialism the focus of his speeches and rallies — a gambit aimed at winning over moderate-minded suburbanites who could be turned off by Sanders’ brand of liberalism.
By contrast, some Trump backers worry Biden could present a serious obstacle for the president in swing areas. Nunberg voiced concern that former President Barack Obama could turn out to be a formidable surrogate for Biden in his effort to make inroads.
“President Trump and his campaign should take Obama’s eventual public role this fall very seriously and develop a message that can expand their 2016 support,” said Nunberg.
With Sanders losing ground in recent days, the Trump machine has abruptly tapered back on its once-constant stream of attacks on the Vermont senator and refocused them on Biden. The hope, two party officials said, was that by doing so it could give Sanders a small boost now.
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Meanwhile, hping to depress and sideline Sanders’ supporters in the general election, Trump is loudly asserting that mainstream Democrats are conspiring to keep the Vermont senator from winning the nomination.
The president began circulating the idea earlier this year, when he contended that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi scheduled the impeachment inquiry to prevent Sanders from campaigning in Iowa ahead of the caucuses. The president doubled down after the Democrats bungled the counting of votes in Iowa, where Sanders had been favored to win.
And with moderate Democrats closing ranks around Biden, Trump and his political team is going further.
“Establishment Democrats,” Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale said in a Tuesday night statement, “have ganged up to try to deny Bernie Sanders the nomination.”