WASHINGTON — There are still 17 months left until the general election but President Donald Trump and his campaign are already previewing a potential face-off with one candidate in particular: former Vice President Joe Biden.
Of the roughly 20 Democrats in the race, Trump’s 2020 team has spent the most effort and resources so far going after the current front-runner in the polls. From derisive tweets and fundraising appeals to surrogates on the airwaves and state-specific lines of attack, “SleepyCreepy Joe” has become the president’s clearest target yet as he seeks a second term.
Biden, for his part, has wasted no time punching back. In his video announcing his candidacy, the three-time presidential hopeful never said his own name but did invoke Trump’s, warning that “if we give Donald Trump eight years in the White House he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation.”
But underneath the public sparring between the two men are signs that their campaign structures are also very much focused on each other.
And one state in particular has provided the starkest blueprint for how the two campaigns plan to attack: Pennsylvania, where Trump and Biden scheduled large-scale rallies 48 hours apart — Biden on Saturday in Philadelphia, and Trump on Monday in northeast Mountoursville.
Both Trump and Biden’s teams agree that the state is a must-win. "If I'm going to be able to beat Donald Trump in 2020, it's going to happen here," Biden told a Pittsburgh crowd in late April.
In closing out his announcement tour Saturday in Philadelphia, Bided called Trump the “divider-in-chief” and told the crowd that achieving their policy goals requires one important first step.
“As long as Donald Trump is in the White House, none of these things, these critical things, are going to get done. So if you want to know what the first and most important plank in my climate proposal is — beat Trump."
Biden's time in the state hasn't gone unnoticed by the Trump team: For Biden's event in Pittsburgh last month, the Trump campaign created a special graphic and tweeted a message telling him to “enjoy the Trump economy!”
After the president himself fired off various anti-Biden tweets and retweeted nearly 60 Twitter users who said they would support Trump instead, Biden mused: “I imagine I’m going to be object of his attention for a while, folks.”
The president has always been quick to label his political opponents with catchy nicknames, most recently tagging Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, as the "Alfred E. Neuman" of the Democratic field.
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For Biden, Trump and his campaign have used a few monikers: “Sleepy Joe,” “Crazy Joe,” “Job-Killing Joe,” “1 Percent Joe,” and the newest twofold insult: “SleepyCreepy Joe.”
The Trump campaign, at least publicly, maintains it is not “scared” of Biden and argues there is no particular candidate who they “fear most,” but it has, notably, attacked the former vice president more than any other Democrat.
The president and his re-election team have tweeted about Biden more than 20 times in recent weeks and Trump has played political pundit on the Democratic primary, tweeting: “Looks to me like it’s going to be SleepyCreepy Joe over Crazy Bernie. Everyone else is fading fast!”
On Monday morning, Trump tweeted that Biden appeared to have the edge:
Looks like Bernie Sanders is history. Sleepy Joe Biden is pulling ahead and think about it, I’m only here because of Sleepy Joe and the man who took him off the 1% trash heap, President O! China wants Sleepy Joe BADLY!
Campaign officials have argued they viewed the whole field as a “homogenous group of socialists,” but they now grant they must also follow the president’s lead in attacking Biden’s record more specifically.
“When President Trumps talks about any socialist in the 2020 Democrat field, it’s generally him correcting the record, addressing direct attacks from those in the primary, and pushing back on the endless attacks against his immensely successful record," Deputy Communications Director Erin Perrine said in a statement to NBC News.
"In the case of Joe Biden, he directly attacked the president right out of the gate, and then mischaracterized the booming economy while speaking in a union hall,” Perrine added.
Earlier this year, the campaign paid attention to Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., when they each formally announced their candidacies with targeted statements blasting their respective backgrounds. To date, they are the only other two Democrats to receive that kind of treatment from the Trump campaign, but it still pales in comparison to the amount of time spent on Biden at this point in the race.
Some Trump allies are concerned that the focus on Biden will only help him maintain his lead, but if 2016 is any indication, that may be a positive for Trump.
“Hillary Clinton was the de facto front-runner at this point last cycle and was leading all the polls,” Kelly Sadler, communications director for the pro-Trump super PAC America First, said. “And we all know how that ended. So bring it on.”
As Biden’s team maps out his campaign, it has had to weigh both the advantages and potential risks of taking the fight to Trump so directly.
Though they say they did not conduct any internal polling before his announced his candidacy, they sensed that Democratic primary voters especially were weighing questions of electability as much if not more than where candidates stood on the issues — and that Biden had the advantage when it came to who was best positioned to defeat Trump.
Biden has said he puts his progressive bona fides up against any primary opponent, but his team believes that the more they can keep voters focused on the threat posed by Trump, the better Biden will fare. By holding his kickoff rally in Pittsburgh, at the eastern edge of the Rust Belt, Biden telegraphed that he would run a general-election-focused campaign.
But the Biden camp also knows that engaging directly with Trump invites the kind of asymmetrical counterpunches from the president that have been debilitating to other candidates. And Biden personally has been wary of how those attacks might land on his family.
“On every single issue and on every demeaning thing he says about other people, I have no problem responding directly. What I’m not going to do is get into what he wants me to do. He wants this to be a mud-wrestling match,” Biden told supporters at a fundraiser in South Carolina recently. “I don’t want to get it down to that level.”
Before Biden launched his candidacy, his team debated how to respond to one Trump attack they saw as undignified — when the @realDonaldTrump account tweeted out a doctored video mocking Biden’s explanation after several women accused him of inappropriate touching.
Though an argument was made among his small group of advisers to brush it off, hours later the former vice president countered: “I see that you are on the job and presidential, as always.” One argument for the response was that Trump was doing him a favor by shifting the discussion away from Biden’s conduct to the central question of the campaign ahead: who can take on the president and win.
In Biden's campaign events so far, the largest applause lines have been those directed at Trump. While Biden has outlined some policy priorities in broad strokes, he has avoided delving deeply into the details, promising those will come in the many months ahead before the first caucuses and primaries.
“There are policy differences amongst the candidates. But I think as a party we are unified in a belief that Donald Trump has to go,” Biden deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield said on MSNBC last Thursday. “Vice President Biden is perhaps the strongest contrast in terms of character and values and representing a different kind of leadership than we currently have.”