WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has struggled to land an effective attack against his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, so instead he is increasingly trying to elevate Biden's running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, offering dire warnings about the potential of her becoming president.
In attacks that critics decry as sexist and racist, Trump has sought to convince voters that supporting him is needed to stop Harris, whom he paints as too liberal and as being groomed to usurp the presidency.
"They're going to be running him ragged," Trump said at a rally Saturday in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
He proceeded to fabricate a White House conversation in which a President Biden was forced to sign documents he didn't understand. Trump mimicked him as saying: "I'm getting tired. I'd like to rest. I'd like to let Kamala take over as president!" drawing boos and jeers at the mention of Harris' name.
"That's no way to get into the office, because we're going to have a woman president someday, but you know what? It can't be Kamala," he said.
A person in the crowd interrupted to scream: "Never!"
Trump repeated her name: "Kamala."
Democrats say Trump is going after Harris because he hasn't been able to incite the same antagonism toward Biden, a white man, as he was able to fuel against his 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton. They also describe his attacks as an attempt to distract from his mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic. Trump's attacks began before — and continued after — the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg threw an already chaotic election year into greater turmoil.
Trump's attacks on Biden — including unfounded claims about Biden's health and insinuations that he'd allow rioters to ransack the country — have failed to help him gain ground in the polls, which consistently show Trump trailing.
"He's doing it as a combination of trying to make Biden look feeble and doing some race-baiting on Kamala. And neither is going to work," said Stephanie Cutter, a co-founder of the consulting firm Precision Strategies, who was deputy campaign manager for President Barack Obama's 2012 re-election campaign.
"He's had a hard time getting anything to really stick to Joe Biden — whether it's 'sleepy Joe' or 'liberal Joe.' Now he's suggesting performance enhancing drugs," Cutter said in an interview. "Nothing is sticking because people have a pretty good sense of Joe Biden and what is at his core."
Some Republicans say the attack on Harris won't be enough.
"Defining Harris is a luxury. Defining Biden is a necessity," said campaign veteran Matt Gorman, a Republican consultant. "People vote for the presidential nominee, not the vice presidential nominee. The focus needs to be on defining Joe Biden."
'The Kamala Harris administration'
Asked to respond, the Biden campaign referred to prominent Black Democratic strategist Karen Finney, who alluded to Trump's stoking of false claims that Harris, an American born in Oakland, California, might not be eligible to be president.
"It's sadly not surprising Trump is resorting to his bigoted playbook — attempts at racist othering based on the same lies he used to attack President Obama, combined with typical sexist tropes aimed at trying to undermine Senator Harris' credibility, hard work and numerous qualifications," Finney said.
Harris was the first woman and the first Black person to be California attorney general. She is the first Black senator to represent the state, and she would be the first woman — as well as the first Black and Asian American person — to be elected vice president.
A Trump surrogate, Jack Kingston, a former member of Congress from Georgia, said highlighting Harris' voting record in the Senate will resonate with swing voters in key states.
"This is an extreme liberal," he said, citing her positions on immigration and health care and echoing speculation about how long Biden would serve. "Some people are going to consider it, because it's doubtful that [Biden] could last four years."
Harris, 55, is a progressive senator from California who ended her bid for president late last year. She is the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India, and her rise represents a paradigm shift as the U.S. becomes a more ethnically diverse and socially liberal country. The pace of change has caused disaffection among some older voters, and Trump has been adept at capitalizing on it politically.
In Wisconsin last week, Trump said Harris was "further left than" Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., a self-described self-described Democratic Socialist, and he claimed that she is "not as smart" as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., but is "a little bit less vicious."
Trump tweeted Monday: "His handlers and the Fake News Media are doing everything possible to get him through the Election. Then he will resign, or whatever, and we are stuck with a super liberal wack job that NOBODY wanted!"
A Trump fundraising text message to supporters Wednesday read, "THE KAMALA HARRIS ADMINISTRATION! The secret is out," before asking for donations. It came after Biden mangled his words in a speech and referred to a potential "Harris-Biden administration."
Biden led Trump by 51 percent to 43 percent in a NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Sunday. Harris is seen favorably by 37 percent of voters and unfavorably by 38 percent, the survey found.
An NPR/PBS/Marist poll released Thursday found Biden leading Trump by 52 percent to 43 percent among likely voters. Biden also led by double digits among suburban voters and white college graduates, two constituencies that have fueled Republican victories in the past.
Stephanie Schriock, the president of EMILY's List, a group that works to elect Democratic women, said she has been expecting Trump to "start using sexist and racist tropes again on Kamala Harris — and here we go."
"I don't think he knows any other playbook. It is just who he is," Schriock said. "His base is pretty riled up. He's losing in all of these polls and not gaining any ground because he's had absolutely nothing to say to the rest of the country. ... And this kind of attack is not going to help him do what he would need to do to win."
Related: Kamala Harris in her early career