In this edition: Julián Castro's long game, the Biden-Sanders health-care wars, and the 37-dimensional chess of Trump and the “squad.”

It was about time that voters had a new three-word chant to yell at their enemies, and this is The Trailer.

KEOKUK, Iowa — Three months ago, when Beto O'Rourke kicked off his campaign for president in this small Mississippi River town, Alan Nelson came to see the Texan's speech in a crowded coffee shop. On Monday, after Nelson heard Julián Castro take questions at a union hall, it clarified what he was really looking for in a candidate.

“I much prefer Julián,” said Nelson, 69. “I don't think Beto has a deep amount of substance.” Nelson waved his arms wildly, in an imitation of the former congressman's high-energy style. “Castro's obviously thought through what he's saying.” 

Castro, one of the first Democrats to announce a 2020 presidential bid, spent six months trying to climb out of obscurity. The first Democratic debate in Miami did the trick. Since then, Castro's campaign has raised at least $1.7 million, and events that once drew 10 or 12 curious Iowans draw 100 to 200. Once dismissed as a policy lightweight, Castro has begun to earn a reputation as the only 2020 candidate with a thought-through immigration plan. 

“People are coming out of the woodwork because of strong word of mouth and because of the debate,” Castro said in an interview here. “Because there are two dozen candidates in this race, the voters are putting people into their top three or five, and I think I bolted into a lot of people's top three or top five.”

The surge, if that's the word for it, has not put Castro anywhere near the front of the pack. Polling, which can be a lagging indicator of candidate strength, has not shown much growth. A Quinnipiac poll of California, conducted after the debates, found Castro winning just 2 percent of Latino voters. He substantially lags the poll leaders in fundraising and has 12 staff members working in Iowa, where other campaigns have dozens of people on the ground. Escaping the back of the Democratic pack is one thing; how does an escapee, like Castro, elbow into the first tier? No candidate who has polled in the single digits six months before the first caucuses has gone on to be the nominee.

In Iowa, any answer starts with voters who aren't comfortable with former vice president Joe Biden or Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — for age reasons, mostly — and want a candidate who'd offer a night-and-day contrast with Trump. The people who showed up for Castro's eastern Iowa swing often said they wanted a “fresh” candidate, that they had not heard much about Castro until the debates, and that they felt good hearing a candidate talk about taking in more refugees and immigrants. On Sunday night, after Castro spent an hour at a forum organized by the pro-immigration group Iowa WINS, some voters reminisced about how their state, under a Republican governor, took in thousands of refugees from the Vietnam War.

“I worked with students who were refugees,” said Darlene Lutes, a 70-year-old retired teacher who was kicking herself for not bringing her copy of Castro's memoir to the meet-and-greet. “We always accepted them. People here are welcoming, and the president isn't.”

Castro's candidacy did not start with a focus on immigration. The first three months of his campaign cast him as the candidate of “the future,” with an agenda that elevated Medicare-for-all as much as immigration. His launch speech, in San Antonio, acknowledged “serious issues that need to be addressed in our broken immigration system” but did not center it the way that O'Rourke would in the interviews and speeches on his first campaign trips.

But O'Rourke, whose emotional rhetoric about El Paso and the communities that existed on the border got him early attention, did not immediately roll out a comprehensive plan. Castro beat him to it, in April, offering potential citizenship to everyone in the country without documents and opposing the law that makes “illegal entry” into the country a crime. The goal was to portray one candidate as serious enough to oppose President Trump on his defining issue.

At the debates, it worked; Castro hit O'Rourke for not doing his “homework” on immigration policy, and a Democratic electorate that had cooled on the former Texas congressman perked up. At meet-and-greets, Castro calls his campaign “fearless” and “bold” because it jumped on an issue that made other Democrats wring their hands.

“Coming out with an immigration [plan] was about not being afraid to take the bully on on what he considers his strongest issue,” Castro said. “Everybody else was sort of keeping their distance and worried about what might happen to their support if they came out strong on immigration. And I said: To hell with that. We're going to go straight out.”

Castro's approach has fired up largely white Iowa audiences; in interviews, they tended to cite his youth and his immigration policy as the reasons they began to watch him. A group of teachers in Keokuk said they've been trying to see all the candidates, have been impressed by just a few and were not making any hard decisions yet.

“Castro's probably my favorite candidate among the men in the race,” said Sandy Bertucci, 64. “It's him and Biden, but with Biden, I do worry about the age factor.”

“Biden's kind of taken that Trump approach: I'm never wrong, I don't need to apologize for anything,” said Stacy Bakhuizen, 50. “He needs to check his privilege.”

Castro's campaign has not, so far, stirred Latino organizations or endorsers, who want Trump gone but worry about allowing the president to run a nativist campaign on immigration. Cecilia Muñoz, who led President Barack Obama's domestic policy council while Castro led the Department of Housing and Urban Development, told The Washington Post last week that Castro's proposal to lower the criminal penalty for illegal border-crossing largely helps Trump.

“It allows him to make a claim that he is already making, which is Democrats are for an open border,” she said.

The response from Castro and many liberals is that Trump's rhetoric, accusing every Democrat of wanting to open the floodgates to violent criminals, has lowered the political cost of “radical” ideas. 

“I don't think it's really that big of a deal,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona. "Every Democrat that runs is going to be, quote-unquote, 'open borders' anyway."

Gallego, who had supported his colleague Eric Swalwell's campaign until the Californian dropped out, has not endorsed Castro. Few Democrats have, and few are expected to do so unless Castro climbs higher in the polls. To qualify for the third debates, in September, he'd need to notch at least 2 percent in four polls; only a half-dozen Democrats have done so in surveys so far.

“Obviously a lot of us want to see the first Latino president,” Gallego said, “but most importantly, we want to make sure we beat Donald Trump.”

The Castro plan, which has almost two months to play out, is simple: Plug away and win over voters who think their other “fresh” options lack substance. The attention lavished on Pete Buttigieg and O'Rourke, who respectively have served seven years as a small city's mayor and six years as a congressman, has put Castro's résumé — once seen as too skimpy for a potential vice president — in a new light. In Muscatine, Castro described his years at HUD as “managing a department that had a $40 billion budget, 8,000 employees and 54 field offices across the country,” when a woman interrupted him to say that she was one of those employees.

“Thank you so much for your service!” said Castro, continuing to talk up how HUD prepared him for the presidency and how he'd been mayor of the country's seventh-largest city.

As he stumped across Iowa, the only risk confronting Castro was how to react to O'Rourke's sinking prospects. Right after the debates, he and O'Rourke held events in Austin, a few blocks away, where Castro told reporters that he was now “the Texas candidate” in the race. In Iowa, members of his campaign quietly passed around a satirical Onion story that mocked O'Rourke's latest negative news cycle: “Remorseful Beto O’Rourke Admits His Family Responsible For My Lai Massacre, Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.”

In a Monday morning gaggle, Castro noted that his fundraising was ticking up while other campaigns were sinking; the news that O'Rourke's fundraising had tumbled broke while Castro was talking to a crowd in Muscatine that filled every corner of a downtown cafe and event space. But asked whether he was trying to single out O'Rourke as the fading candidate, Castro pushed back.

“No, I don't want it to be taken as an invididual thing!” Castro said. “My point is that some candidates get stronger, and some don't.”

READING LIST

"Republicans condemn chant at Trump rally but stand by his characterizations of four minority lawmakers,” by John Wagner, Rachael Bade and Mike DeBonis

Another week, another awkward spot for the president's party.

“Why pick just one? Hollywood donors fund numerous Democrats in bid to beat Trump,” by Tina Daunt and Maloy Moore

The race for big donors is more complicated than ever.

" ‘Win where we won’: As Trump’s campaign boasts of going on offense, its efforts appear squarely aimed at defending his 2016 map,” by Toluse Olorunnipa and Ashley Parker

This week saw the Trump campaign launch a project aimed at winning more women, but the clearest reelection path is base excitement.

“The Bernie-Warren suicide pact to save America,” by Hamilton Nolan

A left-wing argument for only one of the left's candidates staying in the race past the first primaries.

ON THE TRAIL

Bernie Sanders has been talking about bringing single-payer health care to America for most of his political life. But his Wednesday speech on the subject, delivered to around 250 fired-up supporters at George Washington University, managed to sound fresh — because of how fed up he was. Over 45 minutes, Sanders punched up a speech about his life's work with a mix of sarcasm and disbelief.

“Oh, my God, the insurance premium is here, what a wonderful day, oh wow!” said the senator from Vermont, trying to imagine the human being who disliked paying taxes but liked paying for insurance. "Let’s celebrate!"

Moments later, after describing the “disruption” that's a normal part of the private insurance system, he dared Democrats to defend it: “The American people do not — like — their — private — health — insurance — companies.”

The biggest news in the speech was Sanders's challenge to other Democrats to turn down any donations larger than $200 from the pharmaceutical or insurance industry, its PACs and its lobbyists. “Candidates who are not willing to take that pledge should explain to the American people why those corporate interests believe their campaigns are a good investment,” Sanders said.

That was a veiled shot at Joe Biden, who has been attacking Sanders's plan, which would replace the current private/public health-care system with new, universal Medicare. Biden has not turned down money from the industry in his presidential campaign, and his campaign includes an aide with drug company lobbying work on his résumé.

But Sanders's speech, and his campaign's messaging, has been setting up arguments against all of his top rivals, all of them running through the health-care issue. The case against Biden is direct. The case against Sen. Kamala Harris of California is more indirect: It's that she claims to support Medicare-for-all but cannot commit to the tax increases that it would require, and thus couldn't deliver it.

And the case against Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is that she's focused on other issues, ones they see as less fundamental, and not able to build the kind of coalition that Sanders could count on if he became the Democratic nominee. She has plans, but not a specific health-care plan, and Sanders’s ability to sell Medicare-for-all allows him to mobilize more people than she can.

“Bernie Sanders’s base is much more diverse,” Sanders adviser Jeff Weaver said in a Wednesday MSNBC appearance. “It’s much more working class, he’s still winning overwhelmingly with young people. The base is not the same.” 

Biden has married his attack on Medicare-for-all with his campaign’s premise: He will restore and revive the Obama legacy. Sanders has married Medicare-for-all with his own premise: No other candidate can credibly remake American politics by attacking corporate America and its profit motive.

 

AD WATCH

Jim Hood, “A Day in the Life.” The first ad by the all-but-certain Democratic nominee for governor of Mississippi focuses on two things: his years as attorney general, and his Mississippi-ness. “Church on Sunday, and work hard across Mississippi,” Hood says, amid images of him working a field in a tractor. More telling are the two fights he mentions taking on as attorney general: one to get “BP to clean up our coast” and one against “big pharmaceutical companies.” Hood, a social conservative, is trying to push the election toward his issues.

51 for 51. A fairly new project to get Democrats on the record for D.C. statehood — by breaking the filibuster — has made Colorado's Michael Bennet its first target. This video accompanies a newspaper ad campaign to shame Bennet for favoring D.C. statehood but stopping short of filibuster abolition.

POLL WATCH

California Democratic primary (Quinnipiac, 519 Democratic voters)

Kamala Harris — 23% ( 6)
Joe Biden — 21% (-5)
Bernie Sanders — 18% ( 0)
Elizabeth Warren — 16% ( 9)
Pete Buttigieg — 3% (-4)
Andrew Yang — 2% ( 1)
Cory Booker — 1% (-1)
Julián Castro — 1% (-1)
Jay Inslee — 1% ( 0)

The trend lines are from April, when Biden was just climbing into the ring. The best news for Biden here — surprising, considering a drop in overall support — is an uptick in his “electability” numbers. In April, 35 percent of Democrats said Biden had the “best chance of winning against Donald Trump,” and in July, that rose to 45 percent. Asked about which candidate they believe has the best plans, California Democrats make other choices, but no one comes close on the “beat Trump” question. That could be a function of how no candidate seen (or identified) as “moderate” has broken into double digits; even California Democrats have tended to support the candidate with the more moderate reputation in primaries.

2020

Joe Biden. When he wasn't trading blows with Bernie Sanders over health care, he was introducing his plan for rural America, which consisted in large part of reviving or expanding Obama-Biden administration programs. Biden also pitched massive new spending on biofuels (“more than twice what America spent to put a man on the moon”) and $20 billion on rural broadband.

Cory Booker. He sat down with The Washington Post's Robert Costa for a live interview about why his campaign has not quite clicked. 

Elizabeth Warren. She added a crackdown on private equity to her “economic patriotism” agenda.

Kirsten Gillibrand. The senator from New York's work on health care for 9/11 first responders is one of the centerpieces of her career, and her campaign; she spent much of this week going after Republicans for delaying the latest vote on a relief package to next week.

Seth Moulton. He missed the cutoff for the second Democratic debates, protesting that he had hit 1 percent in a dozen polls that were not included by the DNC in its calculations. He was also endorsed by retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

Mark Sanford. He stepped up his exploratory activity, as he ponders a GOP primary run against President Trump, with a video about how government overspending “kills opportunity.”

EVERYBODY IS WRONG

. . . about the president's skill at three-dimensional chess. It's been five whole days since the president, apparently in reaction to a Fox News segment about the left-wing women in the Democratic “squad,” tweeted that they should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” 

For much of the week, the popular take on Trump's tweet was that he had cleverly trapped Democrats into defending some of their most controversial members: Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. (The fourth "squad" member, Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, has not been at the center of any controversies.)

Republicans have previously said they'll link every vulnerable 2020 Democrat to Ocasio-Cortez; they had pummeled Democrats over their refusal to pass a resolution condemning Omar after she said that congressional support was “all about the Benjamins,” the money of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee. And Trump's tweet came after the public squabbling between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Ocasio-Cortez came to a head, with Axios even obtaining a poll that unnamed Democrats conducted to prove that the “squad” was toxic.

"[Trump] plays chess, and he's very often setting up a much deeper fight than you might think, looking at the surface,” said Newt Gingrich. “Pelosi in a sense was trying to draw a line and say, 'We are not them.' After Trump's tweet, she said, 'Oh, we really are them.' "

By Thursday morning, this analysis seemed to come apart; some attendees of the president's Greenville, N.C., rally chanted, “Send her back," not long after Lara Trump, who had just helped launch the 2020 “Women for Trump" campaign, led a cheer echoing his tweets. Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota, who leads the effort to take back the GOP majority in the House, said at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast that there was "no place" for the chant; House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy of California argued, unconvincingly, that the chant came from only a "small group" and that the president did not endorse it.

But the idea that Trump was doing a political favor for Republicans was always risible. In 2016, as a nominee, Trump was at his weakest when he said something that was widely interpreted as racist, especially when some in his party refused to cover for him.

On June 3, 2016 the president said that Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who was presiding over civil fraud lawsuits against the defunct Trump University, had an immutable conflict because of his Mexican heritage. On that day, the average of national polls collated by RealClearPolitics gave Hillary Clinton a 1.5-point lead over Trump; one week later, her lead had jumped to 3.8 points.

Trump waded into trouble again on July 30, 2016, after the Democratic National Convention. Clinton's campaign had given a speaking slot to Khizr Khan, the Muslim father of a dead soldier, who attacked Trump for his then-theoretical “Muslim ban." Trump attacked Khan, initially over how his wife Ghazala stood silently as Khizr spoke. What had been an insignificant 0.4-point lead for Clinton expanded, in one week, to 6.9 points.

This week, even Republican lawmakers who align with the president expressed unease with his language.

It's true that Republicans wanted to tie Democrats to their most left-wing new members, and it's true that some Democrats were nervous about that. But the rush to portray Trump as a chess grandmaster was largely unfounded — for the umpteenth time, he went overboard and made an attack his party was not comfortable defending. And he did so in a way that might stick with his base, separating it from swing-district Republicans who are uncomfortable defending the “send her back" line.

How do we know? In July 2016, Trump was asked about a new chant that had debuted at his rallies — “lock her up." Initially, he said that he didn't like hearing it.

“When I started talking about Hillary Clinton, the veterans who saw her 24 hours before, started screaming, 'Lock her up! Lock her up! Lock her up,'" Trump insisted at a news conference. “They also screamed that, as you know, during the speech I made. The big speech. And I said, “Don't do that." Now, I didn't do that for any reason. I really didn't like it."

Three years later, “lock her up" remains part of the call-and-response at Trump rallies. Because Trump won the 2016 election, the line is seen as a winner; but it's largely been a distraction from whatever message Trump tries to deliver onstage. On Thursday, history repeated itself: Trump told reporters that he “was not happy" with the “Send her back!" chant. But if it sticks, it will continue distorting something that Republicans expected to play well for them — swing-voter irritation with Omar and Ocasio-Cortez — into a perpetual embarrassment.

COUNTDOWN

. . . six days until a presidential forum at the NAACP's convention
. . . seven days until presidential candidates speak to the National Urban League
. . . 12 days until the next Democratic debates