In this edition: The two theories of how to beat Trump, Warren passing Sanders in the polls, and the mystery of Wayne Messam.

To be honest I'd forgotten that there even was a White House press secretary, and this is The Trailer.

On Wednesday afternoon, Joe Biden wrapped up his second trip to Iowa just like he'd started it — a few ideas about fixing the economy and a few updates on the president's tweets. Remove the president, he said, and the country could return to the path it was on when “me and Barack” were in power.

“Four years of Donald Trump will go down as an aberration,” the former vice president said in Clinton, Iowa, repeating a line that has made it into every speech since he became a candidate. “Eight years could fundamentally change who we are as a nation.”

At that very moment, in Washington, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) had gathered supporters to warn that Trump was not an aberration at all.

“Across the globe, the movement toward oligarchy runs parallel to the growth of authoritarian regimes,” Sanders said. “In the United States, of course, we have our own version of this movement — which is being led by President Trump and many of his Republican allies who are attempting to divide our country up.”

Sanders and Biden had similar goals in their high-profile campaign stops — for each, to cut through the noise and establish himself as the candidate with the only strategy for defeating Trump. They did so as polling shows the combined support for Biden and Sanders shrinking and other top-tier Democrats becoming better liked and better known than before.

The two campaign swings did not reframe the race as a contest between Biden and Sanders; they emphasized how Biden has centered Trump in his campaign messaging and how every other candidate worries that doing so will lead to a 2016 redux.

Remarkably, considering how much the president can drive Washington's news cycle, Biden is the only Democratic candidate who begins speeches by reacting to what Trump just did or said. At his first three Iowa stops, he took advantage of the irresistible news that he and Trump were in the state on the same day and provided updates on how the two of them were arguing. No Democrat uses the president's name as much as Biden.

“The president apparently has a secret, important document with Mexico,” Biden said at the start of an appearance in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, referring to a morning Trump appearance where the president waved a piece of paper containing what turned out to be a largely status quo agreement on controlling illegal border-crossings. “I'm sure that there are a heck of a lot of Iowans getting crushed by his tariffs who'd like to see that secret document!”

At other points, Biden brought up Trump lines that had been largely forgotten, such as an insult directed at MSNBC personality Donny Deutsch. Other Democrats have not been responding to Trump directly unless asked by reporters to do so. South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg tells audiences that they can "change the channel" from the "mesmerizing horror show" in Washington, implying that it is simply too distracting (and even unhealthy) to respond to everything Trump says.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts begins her events with an extended riff on her Oklahoma upbringing and how it convinced her that “big, structural change” that redistributes money from the wealthiest Americans is the only way to fix Washington; it is implied, but not said, that this would prevent the rise of another Trump-like figure. Although Warren was the first Democrat to call for Trump's impeachment, she does not mention that in her stump speech.

Sen. Kamala Harris of California takes a third approach, referring darkly to “a commander in chief who takes the word of a North Korean dictator” or “a Saudi prince” over the word of American intelligence agencies but not responding to what Trump has thrown into the news cycle. At a Monday appearance in Dubuque, where her talk went longer than expected — a state legislator who looked ready to lead a Q&A sat behind her onstage — Harris avoided mentioning the president as she spoke in grand terms about what Democrats needed to do.

“This is an inflection moment in the history of our country,” Harris said. “This is a moment that is requiring each of us as individuals, and certainly collectively, to look in a mirror and ask a question. That question being: Who are we? And I think what we all know is that part of the answer to that question is: We are better than this.”

The gap between most Democrats' approach to Trump and the Biden approach was hard to miss; after the Mt. Pleasant stop, one reporter asked the vice president how he could avoid a “mud wrestling” match with Trump.

“By not talking about him personally,” Biden answered. “By talking about where I disagree with him on the issues, why he's doing such damage to the country. That's totally different than attacking his character or lack thereof.”

Of course, Biden was talking about Trump personally; in his Tuesday night appearance in Davenport, which frequently diverged from the remarks the campaign had sent reporters, Biden added some attacks on how the president carried himself. There were murmurs of approval and shouts of “yes!” when Biden said that the president was a bad role model for children.

“Only I can fix it?” Biden said, referring to a line from Trump's 2016 convention speech. “Fix yourself first!”

Sanders's speech was a long-form argument for attacking Trump by ignoring most of what he says. The senator did not mention the president until the 30th paragraph of his speech; at campaign events, he tends to quickly call the president a “racist,” a “homophobe” and a “xenophobe,” then move on to his own agenda. He went after Trump to preview how an attack on him would fit into his campaign theme; he would portray the president as a grifter, a beneficiary of corporate welfare, and cut off his supply to real populist energy.

“If you are the Trump family, you got $885 million worth of tax breaks and subsidies for your family’s housing empire that is built on racial discrimination,” Sanders said. “When Trump screams socialism, all of his hypocrisy will not be lost on the American people.”

On Thursday morning, in a speech at the National Press Club, former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper set out to rebut Sanders and warn that any defense of “socialism” would make it easier for the president to divide Democrats. Asked about the rise of right-wing populism in Europe, Hickenlooper argued that Sanders couldn't be right about the idea that voters turned right for purely economic reasons.

“What he's proposing is democratic socialism as a cure for this rise of populism,” Hickenlooper said. “But we're seeing the populism in those countries that already have that form of government! So, clearly, that's not the solution.”

Sanders and Biden had set the poles of the Democratic debate. On one side, there was a case that the country would put Democrats back in to get rid of Trump; on the other, a case that focusing too much on Trump would leave voters confused about what Democrats really wanted to do. Thirteen days before the first Democratic debate, the other 18 candidates expected onstage are largely settling into place in the unruly space between — whether it's worth going after the president's behavior, or whether they can break through only if they dismiss him personally and attack his policies.

READING LIST

"For Bernie Sanders, the path to power began in a public-housing laundry room,” by Marc Fisher

A long look at the independent's surprising first victory, after a decade of gadfly defeats.

“It’s not just Trump questioning Biden’s age. Democrats are, too,” by Marc Caputo and Natasha Korecki

The tricky task of asking whether a candidate is too old without coming out and using those words.

“Trump 2020 campaign ad payments hidden by layers of shell companies,” by Anna Massoglia

A peek under the hood of the president's reelection operation, though finding the hood isn't easy.

“Joe Biden can’t stop using the toxic 'lock up your daughters' joke,” by Emma Roller

The history of an old-timey joke that the Democrat keeps telling young men.

“Ousted House Republicans eye comebacks,” by Ally Mutnick

The next election might be the last, best shot (the district maps change in 2020) for ousted members who want to return to Congress.

POLL WATCH

2020 Democratic primary in Nevada (Monmouth, 370 likely caucusgoers)

Joe Biden — 36%
Elizabeth Warren — 19%
Bernie Sanders — 13%
Pete Buttigieg — 7%
Kamala Harris — 6%
Cory Booker — 2%
Beto O’Rourke — 2%
Andrew Yang — 2%
Julián Castro — 1%
Tulsi Gabbard — 1%
Amy Klobuchar — 1%

This was the first poll since the start of the Democratic primary, in any early voting state, to find Warren ahead of Sanders; Warren is also the most popular second choice for potential caucusgoers, albeit narrowly. One clear reason is Warren's growing favorability among Democratic voters, which had been a strength for Sanders, too, until recently. Warren's net favorable rating (her positive rating minus her negative rating) is 59 percent, just short of Biden's 65 percent; Sanders clocks in at 45 percent, with 20 percent of potential voters viewing him unfavorably. As soon as Sanders began contrasting himself with Biden, attacking the idea that a “middle ground” approach could win in 2020, other campaigns began looking for evidence that voters would look past Biden and Sanders toward a more positive candidate.

2020 Democratic primary in California (UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll, 2,131 likely voters)

Joe Biden — 22%
Elizabeth Warren — 18%
Bernie Sanders — 17%
Kamala Harris — 13%
Pete Buttigieg — 10%
Beto O'Rourke — 3%
Cory Booker — 1%
Andrew Yang — 1%
Amy Klobuchar — 1%
Julián Castro — 1%

Harris is one of two Democratic candidates endorsed by her state's governor and most of its Democratic legislators. It has not helped her break through in her home state, if the repeated trips there by Warren, Biden, Buttigieg, Sanders and others did not make that clear. In the crosstabs, Harris does well with voters naming a second choice, which matters; California's primary, with the bulk of voting taking place after the Iowa and New Hampshire contests, will feature a shrunken field.

The problem, as Democrats will spend the next few months fretting over: California is the biggest delegate prize in the Democratic primary, and a divided result would make it slightly less likely that any Democrat ends the primaries with a clear majority of delegates. Any candidate who gets more than 15 percent of the vote statewide wins a share of delegates; each of the state's congressional districts assigns delegates with the same math. It's early, and unlikely, but a California result that had three or four candidates crossing the 15 percent threshold in most of the state would lead to an inconclusive delegate split.

2020

Joe Biden. He joined the chorus of Democrats who want one climate change-focused debate, something the Democratic National Committee says it has no intention of hosting.

Beto O'Rourke. He used an appearance on MSNBC's “Morning Joe” to go negative on Joe Biden for the first time, criticizing the former vice president's candidacy more than any other rival has so far. “You cannot go back to the end of the Obama administration and think that that’s good enough,” he said. “As much of a horror show as Trump has been, his racism, the disaster of his foreign policy, his punishment of farmers and workers, here in this country, we had real problems before Donald Trump became president.”

Julián Castro. He signed the new pledge from Eric Holder's National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which commits 2020 Democrats to end gerrymandering; Holder himself will be in early primary states this weekend to promote the plan.

Bernie Sanders. His campaign is dispatching Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) to lead a series of “barnstorms” in Iowa: events pioneered by the 2016 Sanders campaign, where would-be volunteers commit to help the candidate and get specific tasks to work on.

John Delaney. He appeared on ABC's “The View” on Thursday and called the president's statement on taking information about political opponents from foreign governments “un-American.”

Cory Booker. He used an appearance on the new RuPaul show to talk about courting his girlfriend, Rosario Dawson, and how he writes her love poetry from the trail.

Howard Schultz. He sent an email to supporters this week detailing the back surgery that had ended his public appearances after April, and saying he would consider whether to run for president after Labor Day.

WAIT, WHAT?

In 13 days, when 20 Democrats gather in Miami for their first presidential primary debates, they'll be just 22 miles away from the small city of Miramar — and the home of a candidate who missed the stage.

Wayne Messam, Miramar’s mayor, declared his presidential bid March 28 with a small burst of national media coverage. He has been decidedly less visible since then, making just eight public campaign stops, though he’s scheduled to appear at a Monday candidate forum in Washington.

“The campaign is moving forward,” said Angela Messam, the mayor's wife, who answered questions on behalf of the campaign.

But there is intrigue surrounding Messam that is out of proportion for a candidate polling around zero percent. Three weeks after his campaign launch, the Miami New Times reported that staffers were leaving after being told in an email that Angela Messam had “consolidated all of the financial and banking assets of the campaign under her exclusive control and is currently refusing to issue paychecks to staff.”

Wayne Messam issued a statement to the paper that did not deny the story; since then, people who had been working with the campaign appear to have moved on. Charly Norton, who had been pitching Messam to media outlets in March, has no reference to Messam on her social media profiles; she did not answer a question about her relationship with the campaign. Daniel Hogenkamp, the young director of the fundraising firm Grassroots Analytics, said the Messam campaign followed its professional-looking launch with a maneuver that alienated its staff.

“We were contracted on his race, and he hired a solid dozen staff members or so, and raised some money and then did a launch to get name recognition,” Hogenkamp wrote in an email. “Then, he basically pulled some legal maneuver where he switched name of his campaign, didn’t pay any of his staff or contractors, and basically it’s just him and his wife running a Twitter account now.” 

Asked about allegations that the campaign did not pay some people for their work, Angela Messam suggested that it was being smeared. Norton, she said, was part of a firm that the Messam campaign was “considering” working with. (The Trailer was repeatedly emailed by Norton in the run-up to Messam's launch, offering an exclusive on the candidate.) Hogenkamp's firm, she said, was similarly approached but not used.

“The [Wayne for America] campaign officers never authorized Grassroots to work for WFA,” she wrote in an email. “Their firm was interviewed similar to other firms but was never authorized to do any work. We asked grassroots in detail who gave them access and authorized them to do alleged work but they refused to answer and instead demanded money. Fraud!”

Evidence does not back up Messam's claim. The Trailer has reviewed emails between Hogenkamp and people working for the nascent Wayne for America campaign, which show Grassroots Analytics working on the campaign launch and Norton acting as a spokeswoman. When pressed, Angela Messam wrote that “the truth will be told to stop these scam artists who hurt good people’s reputations and in particular [target] minority candidates.”

In four days, Messam is scheduled appear at a forum alongside Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and other leading candidates for president, the first cattle call for which he has reached the threshold.

DEMS IN DISARRAY
 

Five months after left-wing campaigners announced plans to beat Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.) in a primary, they found their candidate: attorney Jessica Cisneros. Justice Democrats, the left-wing campaign group that helped elect Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), had already set up a fund to help any challenger get started; it endorsed Cisneros last night.

In a launch video, Cisneros argued that Cuellar was simply too right-wing to represent a majority-Hispanic district that voted solidly against Trump.

“While the president fans the flames of hate and bigotry, his cruel anti-immigrant policies are pitting Texans against each other,” she said in a statement. “Our Congressman claims to be a Democrat, but he’s voted with Trump nearly 70% of the time and he’s Trump’s favorite Democrat. Henry Cuellar voted to defund sanctuary cities and reproductive services for women's health. He’s received an 'A' rating from the NRA, and he’s accepted thousands of dollars from private prisons and the Koch brothers.”

Cuellar had previously compared groups like Justice Democrats to “cannibals,” and in an interview with Vox, Cuellar's campaign manager Colin Strother dismissed them as “a bunch of New York intellectuals that have never had the red dirt of South Texas on their boots.”

Ocasio-Cortez has not endorsed against any fellow Democratic member of Congress. But on Thursday afternoon, her chief of staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, tweeted a rebuttal to Strother.

“When I lived in TX, I don't recall people wanting their reps to be bought out by big corps,” he wrote.

COUNTDOWN

. . . two days until the Black Economic Alliance holds a candidate forum in Charleston, S.C.
. . . four days until the Poor People's Campaign Forum in Washington
. . . five days until the Trump campaign's official launch in Orlando