Rival Themes Emerge as Race Enters Final Weeks: Covid vs. Law and Order

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As a weeklong Republican offensive against Joseph R. Biden Jr. ends, the Democratic nominee plans to resume campaigning in swing states and has released a multimillion dollar barrage of ads attacking President Trump’s handling of the coronavirus.

The moves come as the presidential campaign barrels into the critical last 10 weeks. They represent a bet by Mr. Biden that a focus on Covid-19 will prevail over Mr. Trump’s “law and order” emphasis and his attempt to portray Mr. Biden as a tool of the “radical left.” Mr. Biden’s ads also celebrate the history of peaceful protests.

Mr. Biden’s team on Friday made clear that they were determined to prevent Mr. Trump from framing the debate over the violent unrest in some cities and would aggressively move to prevent the president’s narrative from taking hold.

“We’re certainly not going to let it go unaddressed,” said Representative Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, who is a chairman of Mr. Biden’s campaign. “I think Americans know it’s false, and we’re going to just have to make sure that they know what our position is.”

Aides to Mr. Trump said on Friday that their line of attack would not change. They plan to repeatedly highlight Mr. Trump’s familiar “law and order” message, and are blunt in their assessment that they will benefit politically from violence erupting at some protests.

Mr. Biden has accused Mr. Trump of “rooting for more violence,” and his advisers said they would push that argument, as Mr. Biden continues to offer his support for peaceful protesters of racial injustice and police brutality.

The national political conventions over the last two weeks set the battle lines for the remaining stretch of the election. Mr. Trump and his allies spent four nights hammering Mr. Biden with misleading and often false claims about his record on fighting crime and support of the police.

Mr. Biden, by contrast, has charged Mr. Trump with a failure of leadership, particularly regarding his handling of the pandemic, for which Americans give the president low marks. The question of which argument feels more urgent to the American people is likely to play a critical role in determining the outcome in November.

Mr. Trump continued his blistering attacks Friday night at a campaign stop in a New Hampshire airport hangar, calling Mr. Biden “the worst candidate” in American history and a friend of “the left-wing mob” that is “marauding through our cities.” Over the weekend, Mr. Trump was set to tour hurricane damage in the South, and Vice President Mike Pence was to campaign in Pennsylvania on Tuesday.

Trump officials said they also planned to have two surrogate bus tours running at all times. The buses — one featuring “Women for Trump” and the other titled “Team Trump on Tour” — were in the Las Vegas area and in Colorado on Friday, where they made stops at field offices and invited local media.

There is a broad consensus in the Biden camp that the election is likely to be won or lost primarily on the subject of leadership on the virus, rather than wedge issues. The death count has now surpassed more than 180,000 Americans, a fact the Republicans largely glossed over this week but that Mr. Biden is making a centerpiece of his campaign. Millions of Americans remain out of work, with many businesses across the nation shuttered, though Mr. Trump emphasized the economic growth pre-virus in his speech Thursday.

Mr. Trump and Republicans also focused on social unrest and the protests against police brutality in Kenosha, Wis., suggesting that the incidents of violence there show the kind of breakdown in order that would proliferate under a Biden presidency. They asserted falsely that Mr. Biden supports defunding the police.

Mr. Biden this week both denounced systemic racism and also expressed his opposition to demonstrations that turned destructive. The developments in Kenosha, after a white police officer repeatedly shot a Black man, Jacob Blake, prompted him to immediately consult allies about the events and discuss how he should address them.

The issue of crime and social disorder is not being taken lightly, Democrats in touch with the Biden campaign said, and they expected Mr. Biden to seize more opportunities in the coming days to emphasize that he makes no excuses for the outbursts in some cities where peaceful protests have soured into scenes of violence. In one sign of the potential potency of the issue, Mr. Biden’s running mate, Senator Kamala Harris, was asked Friday at a fund-raiser about responding to Republicans’ “preying on legitimate fears to lie about defunding police, destroying suburbs.”

In an interview with MSNBC on Thursday Mr. Biden did not rule out a visit to Wisconsin. Some Democrats in the state said they would like to see him visit if health considerations allow.

“It would be great to have a calming influence here, but understand we’re in the middle of a health care pandemic,” Mayor Tom Barrett of Milwaukee said.

He praised Mr. Biden for being in touch with the family of Mr. Blake, and noted Mr. Biden’s condemnation of “destroying property and taking away people’s livelihoods.”

“He certainly can do more, but I think he has stepped up,” said Mr. Barrett, who has consistently urged Mr. Biden to be more active in Wisconsin. “There’s always more that can be done. It is such a hot issue now.”

Some Democrats believe that Mr. Trump can no longer win the election, but still worry Mr. Biden can lose it. Tad Devine, a longtime Democratic consultant, cited polls that show over 50 percent of voters saying they will not vote for the incumbent.

“I don’t see a path for someone who’s in that situation,” said Mr. Devine. But, he added that Mr. Biden’s campaign would be wise to “just keep it steady, not overexpose him” and focus on what could be the last major element of this election: the three debates.

Mr. Biden is expected to step up his television appearances over the next week and return to the campaign trail in a more robust fashion after Labor Day. At a fund-raiser on Thursday, he said he intended to visit states including Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Arizona.

Mr. Trump’s campaign aides are projecting an aggressive campaign schedule more typical of a normal election cycle than one taking place during a pandemic. For Mr. Trump and Mr. Pence, that will play out in the upper Midwest, Nevada, North Carolina and Florida.

The travel follows a Republican convention that was hastily assembled but resulted in the kind of visuals the president likes, aides said, describing it as one of the few times in recent weeks he has been upbeat about an election he fears he is losing. It was put together by a group including longtime Trump adviser Tony Sayegh; the deputy campaign manager for presidential operations, Max Miller; and Justin Caporale, the director of advance operations for the president and Mr. Pence.

Mr. Trump’s aides said he enjoyed the frustration and anger he caused by holding a political event on the South Lawn of the White House, shattering conventional norms and raising questions about ethics law violations. He relished the fact that no one could do anything to stop him, said the aides, who spoke anonymously to discuss internal conversations.

Mr. Biden, for his part, appears to remain convinced that the antidote to Mr. Trump’s divisive strategy is his own rhetoric of national unity and reconciliation — that the best counter to Mr. Trump’s vow to crush what he describes as a dangerous mob is the argument that Mr. Trump cannot put out a fire that he started.

“Donald Trump has anchored his case for re-election on ignoring the pandemic that he’s allowed to spin out of control and bizarrely highlighting violence and discord happening on his own watch — and that he himself has inflamed,” said Andrew Bates, a Biden spokesman.

The Biden campaign mounted an aggressive advertising campaign throughout the R.N.C., spending $8.4 million on ads in key battleground states over the past seven days, according to Advertising Analytics, and $6 million on Facebook.

The majority of their television advertising message was still focused on the Trump administration’s failure to manage the coronavirus. But in a $2 million buy on Thursday night, the campaign ran a two-minute ad on every major national network and Fox News offering one indication of how it intends to counter the Republican talking points: by celebrating the results of protest movements and civil rights battles of the past as a link to the present.

Democrats view Mr. Trump’s law-and-order onslaught as a battering ram aimed at the votes of white women, particularly those without a college degree. Mr. Trump carried that group by 27 percentage points against Hillary Clinton in 2016, but he has held a substantially smaller advantage against Mr. Biden in public and private polling.

The concern among Biden allies is that some fraction of white voters could be persuaded to cast reluctant ballots for Mr. Trump if they become primarily focused on fears about their personal safety.

There is some polling evidence that Mr. Trump has a slight upper hand when it comes to confronting crime. Thirty-two percent of the country said they thought they would be less safe from crime under a Biden administration, compared to 25 percent who thought they’d be more safe, according to the ABC News/Washington Post poll from earlier this month. But 41 percent said that it wouldn’t make much difference who was president.

Suburban white people, a top Trump target, were particularly likely to say Mr. Biden would make them less safe from crime, not more — by a 20-point margin, the poll showed.

Still, when it comes to the protests, most voters dislike how Mr. Trump has responded — suburbanites especially. An ABC News/Ipsos poll last month found that just 36 percent of the country approved of how Mr. Trump was handling the protests.

“For the general public, a protest, marching, peacefully protesting, is not an issue,” said Mayor Shawn Reilly of Waukesha, Wis., outside Milwaukee. “There’s a lot of fear of it going bad, though.”

Maggie Haberman, Jonathan Martin, Thomas Kaplan, Nick Corasaniti and Giovanni Russonello contributed reporting.

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