SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Grasping for a comeback, President Donald Trump and his Republican allies are intensifying their focus not on Democratic nominee Joe Biden, but on his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris — arguing without evidence that it’s Harris, the first Black woman on a major party ticket, who would really be in charge if Democrats win the White House.
The effort is laced with sexist and racist undertones, and one that is aimed at winning back Republicans and independents who are comfortable with Biden’s more moderate record, but may associate Harris with Democrats’ left flank, despite her own more centrist positions on some major issues.
During the past week, Trump told Sean Hannity of Fox News that Harris would assume the presidency within “three months” of Biden's inauguration. During a conversation with Rush Limbaugh, he warned that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would “replace” Biden with Harris. And the president called her a “monster” during an interview with Maria Bartiromo of Fox Business.
Trump's focus on Harris is building as he tries to regain an advantage against Biden, who is leading most national and battleground state polls three weeks before the election. Trump has long sowed doubt about Biden's fitness for the job, but is especially eager to shift attention after contracting the novel coronavirus and confronting his own health scare.
At his first campaign rally since being hospitalized for the virus, Trump told a Florida crowd on Monday that Biden has “a lot of bad days coming."
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump ally, is pushing the president to make Harris a campaign centerpiece.
“If voters understand the totality of her radicalism, they would conclude that she would be a very high-risk person to put in the White House,” Gingrich said.
He went on to call Biden “docile" and Harris “aggressive."
The sexism and racism associated with such language, including Trump’s reference to Harris as a “monster,” are aimed at Trump’s most loyal supporters.
“It is really an effort to say to their base, ‘Look, we don’t want a Black woman to be president,'" said Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. "'We don’t want this Black person to take over in case something happens to Joe Biden.’”
Fudge said efforts to brand Harris as radical don’t align with her record, particularly on law enforcement. Harris and Fudge are both former prosecutors.
Republicans “consistently talk about law and order to the only person in this race that has a law-and-order background,” Fudge said.
Still, there are some signs that Trump's message is resonating with his base.
“I’m scared that if Harris gets in, it will be a Harris administration ’cause old Joe’s got some issues," said Bob Stanley, a retired orthopedic physician assistant who lives in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and said he will be voting again for Trump.
Joshua Dyck, an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, said the focus on Harris is a sign that Trump's attacks on Biden aren't working.
“This is a desire not to run against Joe Biden, to run against anybody but Joe Biden,” he said.
There’s little evidence that Trump’s strategy will change minds. While vice presidential picks generate buzz, they rarely sway voters, said Dyck, who also runs the UMass-Lowell’s Center for Public Opinion.
One exception may be 2008, when Republican John McCain chose little-known Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate. McCain was 72. A New York Times/CBS News poll taken just before the election found 59% of voters said Palin was not prepared to be president.
A vice presidential nominee’s ability to step in as commander in chief has long been a prime qualification for a running mate. Either the 77-year-old Biden or the 74-year-old Trump would become the oldest president ever inaugurated.
Biden last released medical records in December 2019, during the Democratic primary. Biden’s doctor called him “healthy, vigorous” and fit to execute the duties of the presidency. He takes a statin medication for cholesterol and has a “persistent” atrial fibrillation, a type of irregular heart beat. He takes a blood thinner to prevent risks like blood clots or stroke.
A Pew Research Center poll released in August found that among Biden supporters, 31% called his age or health a concern in an open-ended question. Just 1% of Trump's supporters said the same about the president, though the survey was taken before Trump contracted the coronavirus.
Harris and Vice President Mike Pence deflected in last week's debate when asked if they had conversations with Biden and Trump, respectively, about procedures in the event of presidential disability.
Harris did not address the question directly or speak to Biden’s health at all, instead pivoting to their shared values and her own political background, an implicit nod to her fitness for the top job if need be.
“I serve on the Senate Intelligence Committee, where I’ve been in regular receipt of classified information about threats to our nation and hot spots around the world. I’ve traveled the world. I’ve met with our soldiers,” she said.
It was a rare moment of Harris talking about herself. As typical for running mates, she regularly pivots to Biden's record in a clear demonstration that he is the one running to lead the nation.
Biden and Harris can best respond to the attacks by focusing on their agenda and policies, said Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee of California. Other allies can denounce Trump's comments, as the women of the Congressional Black Caucus recently did.
“There are those in the country who need to raise their voices and say this is un-American," Lee said. “We cannot tolerate this in a multiracial country."
Associated Press writers Bill Barrow in Wilmington, Del., and Jill Colvin in Washington contributed to this report.