Biden's launch riles up Trump

President TrumpDonald John TrumpHarris bashes Kavanaugh's 'sham' nomination process, calls for his impeachment after sexual misconduct allegation Celebrating 'Hispanic Heritage Month' in the Age of Trump Let's not play Charlie Brown to Iran's Lucy MORE’s decision to ramp up his attacks on Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden bemoans white supremacy in remarks at civil rights movement site Gun control: Campaigning vs. legislating Sunday shows - Guns dominate after Democratic debate MORE suggests he views the former vice president as a major threat at the outset of the 2020 race.

While Trump’s team sees flaws in Biden, it considers his broad name recognition, ties to former President Obama and appeal to white, working-class voters as potential advantages for him in a general election match-up.

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The president believes he can weaken Biden’s chances of winning the Democratic nomination by bloodying him early in the primary, even though Trump’s campaign operation prefers not to elevate specific Democrats by singling them out for criticism.

Trump’s objective in launching an onslaught against Biden during his campaign launch is “kneecapping him right out of the gates,” according to a former White House official, who requested anonymity to discuss the president’s thinking.

“As of today, he’s the strongest Democrat nominee,” the official said Monday, adding that while media coverage has focused heavily on the former vice president, “what the president did by tweeting about Biden today is trying to control and set the narrative ahead of Biden’s launch.”

Democrats said Trump’s attacks prove that Biden would be a tough challenger for the president.  

“Clearly, Vice President Biden bugs the president,” said Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineBolton exit provokes questions about Trump shift on Iran Overnight Defense: Dems grill Trump Army, Air Force picks | House chair subpoenas Trump Afghanistan negotiator | Trump officials release military aid to Ukraine Air Force nominee: Setting up Space Force would be 'key imperative' MORE (Va.), the Democratic vice presidential candidate in 2016. “I think he's very worried about Pennsylvania and he's probably thinking about Biden's strength there.”

Trump swiped at Biden on Twitter four times over the course of 20 minutes on Monday, claiming broad support from rank-and-file union workers just hours before the Democratic candidate held his first campaign rally in the organized-labor bastion of Pittsburgh.

Biden received a key boost ahead of the event by securing an endorsement from the International Association of Fire Fighters, which sat out the 2016 race.

The president tweeted that he himself would “never get the support of Dues Crazy union leadership” because they “will always support Democrats” even though “the members love Trump.”

Within two hours, Biden shot back on Twitter that he is “sick of this President badmouthing unions” and declared that “we need a President who honors them and their work.”

Trump’s barrage of criticism also cast doubt on Biden’s ability to win Pennsylvania, saying the state “is having one of the best economic years in its history” and that “Sleepy Joe” and Obama “didn’t do the job and now you have Trump, who is getting it done - big time!”

Pennsylvania is a key battleground state where white, working-class defections from the Democratic Party helped propel Trump to victory in 2016. Biden’s decision to stage his kickoff rally there shows he is making an aggressive play to win back those voters in the Keystone State and across the Rust Belt.

“If I’m going to beat Donald Trump in 2020, it’s going to happen here,” Biden told a cheering crowd inside a Teamsters hall during a speech heavily focused on how he would help the middle class.

People close to Trump say the easiest way to eliminate the threat posed by Biden may be for the former vice president to falter in the Democratic primary.

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While the 76-year-old entered the race as the Democratic front-runner, according to several polls, political strategists have questioned whether he will be able to capture the nomination of a party moving further to the left and woo activists yearning for a younger, more diverse face of the party.

Some Trump allies said that by characterizing Biden as a liberal Democrat and a creature of Washington, the president can force him to fight a multifront war as he battles progressive activists who have criticized Biden’s ties to Wall Street and major donors.

“There’s been a lot of focus on the potential positives of a Joe Biden campaign, but there hasn’t been much focus at all on some of his weaknesses,” the former White House official said.

In the past month, Trump, 72, has also hit the former vice president over his age and needled him with an edited video that made light of women’s accusations of unwanted touching, even though the president has been accused of sexual misconduct.

But Trump’s campaign has been wary of attacking individual candidates, with the belief that doing so could help contenders gain traction among voters in the anti-Trump Democratic base.

When asked last week whether Biden is viewed as a threat, a Trump campaign official replied that “it doesn’t matter who comes out of the Democrat convention next year,” because any candidate would be “saddled with all of the socialist policies they will have adopted in order to win the nomination.”

The official raised questions about whether Biden could win the primary, saying “there is no centrist lane in the Democrat primary and anyone who runs as a moderate is doomed.”

Democrats think Biden could benefit from being in Trump’s crosshairs. The attacks set up a one-on-one political fight that could lift the former vice president above the fray of the crowded Democratic primary field.

Biden made it clear he has his sights set on Trump by launching his campaign last week with a video blasting the president’s response to the deadly 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., and saying the “soul of this nation” is at stake if Trump wins another term.

Few other candidates went after Trump during their campaign rollouts in such a direct way.

A raft of recent surveys show Trump would face a tough reelection bid against Biden in a hypothetical general election match-up.

The latest Hill-HarrisX poll found Biden leading Trump by 6 percentage points among registered voters nationwide. Biden has a 1-point edge over Trump in the red state of Texas, according to a new Emerson College poll of registered voters.

Trump has nonetheless indicated he thinks he would beat Biden if the two were to face off against each other next year, despite the danger Biden poses in the president’s Rust Belt stronghold and elsewhere.

“I think we beat him easily,” the president said Friday when asked how he would defeat Biden.

But some pro-Trump figures are less certain.

“I think Biden’s the most difficult guy for him to run against,” former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), an informal adviser to Trump, said Sunday on ABC News’s “This Week.” “If Biden can make his way through the primary and stay on the rails ... he’s the toughest one.”

Al Weaver and Niall Stanage contributed.