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President Trump's Attempts To Define And Disqualify Biden Are Having Mixed Results


Every incumbent facing a tough reelection tries to disqualify their opponent. But a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll shows Joe Biden leading President Trump 52-44, and it reveals that so far, the Trump campaign is having mixed results trying to define and undermine Biden. NPR's Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Here's Trump on Biden at his recent rally in Tulsa, Okla.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: In Joe Biden's America, rioters, looters and criminal aliens have more rights than law-abiding citizens. And that's true.

LIASSON: Even though polls show Trump continuing to trail Biden nationally and in the battleground, Trump campaign aides are confident they can beat what they call a defined Biden. But defining and demonizing Biden has been a struggle, says David Axelrod, President Obama's top political strategist.

DAVID AXELROD: He's an old, white, Catholic, working-class guy from Scranton, Pa., which is why Trump bought himself an impeachment trying to stop Biden from becoming the Democratic nominee - because he's simply not scary enough for Donald Trump's purposes.

LIASSON: But not for lack of trying. The Trump campaign has spent tens of millions of dollars on brutal ads tying Biden to communist China and others that paint Biden as old and out of it, like this one that begins, Joe Biden is slipping.


JOE BIDEN: And with...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Now at the age of 77 years old and running for president for the third time, Biden is clearly diminished.

BIDEN: All men and women are created by - oh, you know, the thing.

LIASSON: Trump, who is 74, is a master at branding, finding and labeling his opponents' weak spot with a single word or phrase. He came up with the nickname sleepy Joe, but that turned into a you're rubber; I'm glue situation when a group of anti-Trump Republicans ran an ad about Trump's mental state with video of the president lumbering down the ramp at West Point. The purpose of the ad was to get under Trump's skin. It worked.


TRUMP: They say there's something wrong with our president. I'll let you know if there's something wrong.

LIASSON: Sometimes Trump's attacks on Biden can be hard to follow.


TRUMP: And he's not radical left. I don't think he knows what he is anymore, but he was never radical left.

LIASSON: Wait. Joe Biden's not radical left? That's the kind of testimonial Biden would happily put in his own ads. But in Tulsa, Trump was actually trying to make a more nuanced argument.


TRUMP: Joe Biden is not the leader of his party. Joe Biden is a helpless puppet of the radical left.

LIASSON: Republican strategist Sara Fagen, who was President George W. Bush's political director, says it is an effective strategy - if delivered consistently - to paint Biden as a tool of the left wing of the Democratic Party.

SARA FAGEN: The Bernie Sanders wing of the party, the Elizabeth Warren wing of the party, the AOC wing of the party. I think moderate Republicans probably look at Joe Biden, and they think, well, he's a nice enough guy. He's been around. I don't really like him on taxes, but he'll be fine. And, like, the reality is he won't be fine. He will be adopting the agenda of these other people that even moderate Republicans want no part of. And I think that's really what the president is trying to do and needs to do.

LIASSON: Outside the arena in Tulsa, there was plenty of merch for sale, but T-shirts showing Hillary Clinton were easier to find than anti-Biden gear. It seems as though Democratic women stir up a lot more animus on the right than Joe Biden does, and that makes demonizing Biden a trickier task. So does the fact that Biden has been staying under the radar.

FAGEN: He's not out making the typical Joe Biden gaffes on a daily basis. As a result, I think he's harder to define.

LIASSON: So for now, the election is a referendum on the incumbent, and Trump is shadowboxing.

FAGEN: It does sort of feel some days like he doesn't have an opponent.

LIASSON: Fagen is certain the race will eventually become a binary choice. But for now, Joe Biden isn't giving Donald Trump much new material to work with. And for a street fighting politician like Trump, whose best punch is the counterpunch, that is a handicap. Mara Liasson, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLENDERBODIES SONG, "OPAL OCEAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.