But behind the scenes, the offensive has become a point of contention among some of President Trump’s closest advisers, who have spent weeks debating without resolution the best message and strategy to accomplish the Trump campaign’s central goal of tarnishing the Biden brand as poll numbers continue to show a rocky road to reelection for the president.
Several political advisers, including White House senior aide Kellyanne Conway, have warned his allies against relentlessly mocking the 77-year-old Biden’s mental acuity because the president has already lost ground with senior citizens, people familiar with the matter said.
Senior Democratic and Republican strategists, in private conversations, are in full agreement about the stakes of the discussions now taking place at the White House and in campaign conference calls. If President Trump and his political machine don’t find a way to drive up Biden’s unpopularity with voters, they argue, the president will have little shot at winning a second term.
“We have to introduce people to a different Joe Biden,” a Trump campaign adviser said. “One of the reasons we won in 2016 is because so many people hated Hillary Clinton. I’m not sure people hate Biden that much.”
Republicans need the election to be a choice between Biden and Trump and not a referendum on the president’s performance and rhetoric in office, according to Republican and Democratic strategists. On this score, Democrats said they are — for the moment — more bullish on Biden’s prospects than they expected to be just a few months ago.
The debate over when and how to launch a focused and sustained attack on Biden with paid advertising has yet to be resolved inside the president’s campaign, according to multiple sources.
“There are advisers telling him to wait until the convention. Other people saying go at it now,” said one Trump campaign adviser, who like others requested anonymity to discuss the private deliberations. “It is not decided.”
Adding to the dilemma for the president’s campaign is that the coronavirus pandemic has focused the spotlight brightly on the president and his controversial handling of the outbreak while Biden maintains a relatively low profile, doing interviews and virtual campaign events from a basement office at his home in Delaware.
The pandemic has delayed a widely expected anti-Biden advertising offensive by the vastly wealthier Trump campaign, allowing Democratic super PACs to outspend Republicans in key swing states over the last month. Biden’s approval ratings are also far stronger than those of the last Democratic nominee, Clinton, at this point in 2016.
“Our expectation was always that Trump would go on offense early and we’d have to scramble to defend against his attacks,” said Josh Schwerin, an adviser to Priorities USA, a super PAC supporting Biden. “The reality has been we’ve been able to run millions of dollars of thoroughly researched and tested ads, largely unanswered, and Trump’s numbers in these states have been eroding badly.”
Trump decided last month to delay a decision by his campaign leadership to run ads attacking Biden’s policy toward China, after multiple advisers urged him to focus on selling his leadership as president during the pandemic first. As a result, the campaign has said it will spend more than $1 million over the next week on advertising across the country promoting Trump’s pandemic response, a move that Democrats have dismissed as a cosmetic move to please the president, who is consumed by what he watches on cable television.
Parscale has repeatedly argued that getting Biden’s unfavorable numbers up is key to winning the election in November, according to people who have heard his comments.
He has told other campaign advisers that positive ads do not do as much for the president's political fortunes as negative ads against Biden, and that is why he wants to focus on campaign ads that are anti-Biden, even as some advisers would prefer a different approach.
“You can’t let Biden hide in the shadows,” Parscale has told surrogates, according to a person with direct knowledge of his comments.
Parscale has been among the most aggressive advocates in going after Biden, but his standing has become shaky at times with the president, four Trump advisers said.
Trump’s team hopes to target Biden particularly over China once the pandemic wanes along with trade deals and some of the more liberal policy positions he committed to during the Democratic debates, such as health care for undocumented immigrants. The Trump campaign has several ads about China ready to go.
A recent Republican National Committee poll showed 51 percent of voters in 17 swing states — such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — blame China the most for the coronavirus, according to a person briefed on the results. Some 24 percent blame Trump the most.
The polling on China is so strong that the major Trump super PAC, America First Action, has launched a $10 million campaign casting Biden as “weak” on handling the U.S. rival. The group purchased the Web address BeijingBiden.com in 2019, long before the pandemic.
“It is not that there is one line of attack against Joe Biden. The most damaging thing against Joe Biden is that while he has high name ID, the depth of impression of him is weak,” America First Action president Brian O. Walsh said. “He is relatively a blank slate.”
The America First spots have been matched by a similar investment in the same states from the pro-Biden super PAC American Bridge 21st Century, which has been running ads that cast Trump as caving to pressure from China.
“Since November, we’ve defined Trump in key battlegrounds — outspending him on TV and radio in our target states,” said Bradley Beychok, the group’s president.
Some Trump allies and campaign surrogates are also focusing on the allegation from Tara Reade that Biden sexually assaulted her in the early 1990s — an accusation Biden denies — as well as the former vice president’s tendency to make verbal gaffes. But the latter two arguments are challenging given the president’s history of women accusing him of sexual assault, which includes Trump caught on tape bragging about grabbing women’s genitals, and his tendency to also veer off script into meandering, untruthful comments.
Trump has complicated the matter further this week by repeatedly suggesting in public that Reade’s allegation may be false.
“I would just say to Joe Biden, ‘Just go out and fight it,’ ” Trump said Friday during an interview with conservative podcast host Dan Bongino.
A number of Trump’s top political advisers said they are frustrated that Biden is “hiding out” in his basement, making fewer gaffes and public comments than they hoped, even if they anticipated this before the pandemic.
“We always thought he was going to play Biden-seek once he got the nomination, leaving it to his ads and his handlers to shape his image. This has given him an ability to do that,” Ronna McDaniel, chair of the RNC, said in an interview.
Trump’s advisers have taken heart in some recent internal polls that show voters seeing the president as more energetic and more of a “not your average politician” than Biden. Some 20 percent see Trump as not an average politician, according to a recent RNC poll reviewed by The Washington Post, while 69 percent see Biden as more of a normal politician.
Some Trump advisers said they are happy that Biden is basically being a pundit on TV instead of calling troops overseas, working with food banks or doing things that would get him more positive media coverage and draw a contrast with the president during the pandemic.
Conway has been one of the adviser’s arguing for a delay in attacking Biden on China and along with others has pushed for going after him as an establishment, insider politician.
“To me, it’s just sequence. You have the president, you have the secretary of state, you have many Democrats angry with China about the virus,” she said in an interview. “You set that groundwork now. And then, later, you say Biden has spent four decades being compliant and complacent. It’s about sequencing.”
The Biden campaign dismissed the idea that the former vice president is vulnerable on the issue of China.
“Kellyanne Conway should read the Trump campaign’s own polling, which shows Joe Biden winning in a landslide after sounding the alarm about coronavirus early, publicly warning Donald Trump not to trust the Chinese government about containment, and calling for testing on the scale we need to overcome this outbreak,” said Andrew Bates, a spokesman for the Biden campaign.
Working from the White House while many top campaign aides are at home during the pandemic, Conway has been dispatched to help the president improve his numbers among senior citizens, which have dropped in recent public and internal polling. She helped orchestrate an event at the White House on Thursday where Trump spoke with leaders of senior citizens groups.
Recent RNC polling showed that voters in the 17 swing states — a list that includes Arizona, Florida and North Carolina — see the two men as essentially equal when it comes to being “weak or confused,” 45 percent saw Biden as more weak and confused, while 44 percent saw Trump that way.
Voters view Trump as more of an outsider — 69 percent to 20 percent — and better at getting things done and handling the economy. Some 46 percent say Trump is in better health, while 37 percent say Biden is in better health.
But voters say Biden better understands average people and is more honest, compassionate, calm and committed to making health care more affordable by double-digit margins, the poll showed. Voters also see Biden as more intelligent and competent, the poll showed.
Trump aides have been discussing attacks that range from going after Biden for not supporting the raid on Osama bin Laden to supporting taxpayer-funded health care for illegal immigrants and supporting the Green New Deal and its champion liberal freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), according to Republican officials. Other attacks would focus on Biden’s support of the Iraq War or backing the NAFTA trade agreement, Trump advisers said.
They are also looking to exploit divisions in the Democratic Party — from liberals who are skeptical of Biden’s more centrist positions to moderates and independents who are skeptical of him promising more liberal positions. Trump advisers say they hope to unearth more contentious Senate votes and want to see his papers at the University of Delaware covering his 36 years as a senator.
In 2016, Trump and his campaign were successful in making Hillary Clinton unpopular, magnifying concerns that predated the campaign by focusing on her government emails, foreign entanglements, speaking fees and long career as a Washington insider.
Like Clinton, Biden has spent decades in Washington as a political insider, but Trump, who withstood a massive negative advertising onslaught in 2016, is now running for reelection as the president, potentially blunting the attack.
“It will be interesting to see if it works,” said Amanda Loveday, an adviser to the pro-Biden super PAC Unite the Country. “Because it didn’t work against Donald Trump. And I would argue it didn’t work against Hillary Clinton because the people who didn’t like her already didn’t like her.”
Philip Rucker contributed to this report.