Democrats worry Biden will be defined by Trump attacks

Democrats are worried Joe BidenJoe BidenThe Hill's Campaign Report: Biden chips away at Trump's fundraising advantage The Memo: Trump grows weak as clock ticks down Nina Turner addresses Biden's search for a running mate MORE is struggling to define himself as President TrumpDonald John TrumpSecret Service members who helped organize Pence Arizona trip test positive for COVID-19: report Trump administration planning pandemic office at the State Department: report Iran releases photo of damaged nuclear fuel production site: report MORE escalates his attacks on the presumptive Democratic nominee for the White House.

For months, some party strategists have worried that Trump has a significant advantage over Biden given his control of the airwaves and use of the White House bully pulpit while the coronavirus pandemic keeps Biden off the campaign trail.

“Hard to think of a president who won after letting their opponent do all the talking,” said Philippe Reines, the longtime adviser and spokesman to Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonCarville repeats prediction that Trump will drop out of race What's behind Trump's slump? Americans are exhausted, for one thing Trump campaign reserves air time in New Mexico MORE. “Yes, he was vice president. Yes, his approval numbers are high. No, you can’t glide to November on that alone.”

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Those fears were intensified again on Thursday when Trump’s campaign launched a string of ads on Facebook targeting Biden’s age and fitness for office, saying “geriatric mental health is no laughing matter.” 

The ads made it clear the Trump campaign intends to go after Biden’s age, even though some White House staffers had worried this could backfire with seniors, who polls show are now supporting Biden over Trump. 

It’s also part of a concerted effort the White House and Trump campaign are making to drive up Biden’s negatives, an undertaking echoed by Republicans in Congress and voices in the conservative media. 

The attacks include hitting Biden’s record on China and raising the argument that he was part of an Obama administration effort to undercut Trump

Reines said there’s a greater danger this will be effective the more Biden remains sidelined by the pandemic. 

"There will be two names on the ballot. SARS-CoV-2 isn't one of them," Reines said. "Donald Trump won't lose in a vacuum. Joe Biden must beat him." 

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“Yes, this election more than others will be a referendum on the incumbent,” he continued. “But this race is not solely about Trump. ... Joe Biden does not need to spend all his time introducing himself to the electorate. But he has to spend as much time and energy as it takes to fight every attempt by the right to reintroduce him as someone he’s not.” 

A CNN poll out this week showed that while Biden leads Trump by 5 percentage points nationally, he trails him by 7 points in 15 battleground states. The poll caused Democrats to worry that Biden could win the popular vote, as Clinton did in 2016, but lose the Electoral College. 

Democratic strategist Brad Bannon said another danger for Biden is that in answering the Trump attacks, he will fail to put out his own message.

“Joe Biden is in danger of falling into the Trump trap that unraveled Hillary Clinton's campaign in 2016,” said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon. “Donald Trump offered many tempting attack targets and Clinton was so busy responding to Trump broadsides that she was unable to focus on her own message.”

A longtime Biden ally said the fears are overstated. 

“He’s tried the whole ‘Sleepy Joe’ thing. He's trying to say he's corrupt. He’s tried that angle with women,” the ally said. “He tried all of it throughout the primary so that he wouldn’t win the nomination and it didn't work.”

“I’m not naive to think this will stop him from continuing with these stories but people know Joe Biden and I think that’s going to carry him far,” the ally added.  

Tobe Berkovitz, a communications professor at Boston University who has worked as a political media consultant, said Biden’s effort to cast himself as a political elder at a time of crisis could help him.

“Usually Beltway experience isn’t much of a winning hand, but in the COVID era, maybe it is useful,” Berkovitz said. 

Basil Smikle, who served as the executive director of the New York State Democratic Party, said Biden needs to go on offense to control his own narrative. 

“Biden needs to deploy high profile surrogates and grassroots activists to organize digitally far more frequently, and force the president and particularly his allies in the Senate, to respond to him,” Smikle said. 

Reines agreed, adding that it was important for Biden not only to define himself but to keep reminding voters of exactly who Trump is. 

“You have to hold serve,” he said. “If you can, it’s game, set, match. If you can’t, it’s Gore, Kerry, Clinton.”