Trump intensifies focus on Harris in final weeks of campaign

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Grasping for a comeback, President Donald Trump and his Republican allies are intensifying their focus not on Democratic nominee Joe Biden, but on his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris — arguing without evidence that it’s Harris, the first Black woman on a major party ticket, who would really be in charge if Democrats win the White House.

The effort is laced with sexist and racist undertones, and one that is aimed at winning back Republicans and independents who are comfortable with Biden’s more moderate record, but may associate Harris with Democrats’ left flank, despite her own more centrist positions on some major issues.

22 PHOTOSTrump and Biden on the campaign trailSee GalleryTrump and Biden on the campaign trailSupporters cheer as President Donald Trump departs a campaign rally at John P. Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport in Johnstown, Pa., Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at Southwest Focal Point Community Center in, Pembroke Pines, Fla., Tuesday Oct. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport, Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020, in Johnstown, Pa. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)Democratic Presidential Candidate Joe Biden speaks during a drive in rallyin Miramar, Florida on October 13, 2020. – Joe Biden headed for Florida to court elderly Americans who helped elect Donald Trump four years ago but appear to be swinging to the Democratic candidate for the White House this time around amid the coronavirus pandemic. Biden, at 77 the oldest Democratic nominee ever, is to “deliver his vision for older Americans” at an event in the city of Pembroke Pines, north of Miami, his campaign said. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)Supporters cheer as President Donald Trump departs a campaign rally at John P. Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport in Johnstown, Pa., Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)PEMBROKE PINES, FLORIDA – OCTOBER 13: Wearing a face mask to reduce the risk posed by the coronavirus, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden poses for a socially-distanced selfie after delivering remarks about his ‘vision for older Americans’ at Southwest Focal Point Community Center October 13, 2020 in Pembroke Pines, Florida. With three weeks until Election Day, Biden is campaigning in Florida. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)President Donald Trump moves to the song YMCA as he finishes a campaign rally at John P. Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport in Johnstown, Pa., Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)Supporters look on as Democratic Presidential Candidate Joe Biden speaks during a drive in rally in Miramar, Florida on October 13, 2020. – Joe Biden headed for Florida to court elderly Americans who helped elect Donald Trump four years ago but appear to be swinging to the Democratic candidate for the White House this time around amid the coronavirus pandemic. Biden, at 77 the oldest Democratic nominee ever, is to “deliver his vision for older Americans” at an event in the city of Pembroke Pines, north of Miami, his campaign said. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)Supporters listen as President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport, Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020, in Johnstown, Pa. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) wears a mask depicting Democratic Presidential Candidate Joe Biden as he speaks during a drive in rally in Miramar, Florida on October 13, 2020. – Joe Biden headed for Florida to court elderly Americans who helped elect Donald Trump four years ago but appear to be swinging to the Democratic candidate for the White House this time around amid the coronavirus pandemic. Biden, at 77 the oldest Democratic nominee ever, is to “deliver his vision for older Americans” at an event in the city of Pembroke Pines, north of Miami, his campaign said. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)President Donald Trump throws face masks into the crowd during a campaign rally at John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport, Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020, in Johnstown, Pa. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)The Florida state flag hands behind Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden as he speaks at Southwest Focal Point Community Center in, Pembroke Pines, Fla., Tuesday Oct. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at John P. Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport in Johnstown, Pa., Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020.(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)While maintaining social distance, people try to make a selfie as Jill Biden, center, waves to supporters after she was introduced by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, left, with Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Texas, looking while campaigning for her husband and former Vice President Joe Biden in a parking lot event at Fair Park Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020, in Dallas. (AP Photo/LM Otero)Supporters cheer as President Donald Trump departs a campaign rally at John P. Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport in Johnstown, Pa., Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)Wendy Nelson holds up posters of Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden as she waits for she waits for motorcade to arrive, Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020, at Miramar Regional Park in Miramar, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)Supporters cheer as President Donald Trump arrives for a campaign rally at John P. Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport in Johnstown, Pa., Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at Miramar Regional Park in Miramar, Fla., Tuesday Oct. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)A crowd of fans cheer on President Donald Trump during a Make America Great Again campaign rally at the John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport in Johnstown, Pa., Tuesday, Oct.13, 2020. (John RucoskyMIRAMAR, FLORIDA – OCTOBER 13: Wearing a face masks and sitting in their cars to reduce the risk posed by the coronavirus, supporters listen to Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden delivers remarks during a drive-in voter mobilization event at Miramar Regional Park October 13, 2020 in Miramar, Florida. With three weeks until Election Day, Biden is campaigning in Florida. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)President Donald Trump tosses face masks into the crowd as he arrives for a campaign rally at John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport, Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020, in Johnstown, Pa. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at Miramar Regional Park in Miramar, Fla., Tuesday Oct. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)Up Next

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During the past week, Trump told Sean Hannity of Fox News that Harris would assume the presidency within “three months” of Biden’s inauguration. During a conversation with Rush Limbaugh, he warned that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would “replace” Biden with Harris. And the president called her a “monster” during an interview with Maria Bartiromo of Fox Business.

Trump’s focus on Harris is building as he tries to regain an advantage against Biden, who is leading most national and battleground state polls three weeks before the election. Trump has long sowed doubt about Biden’s fitness for the job, but is especially eager to shift attention after contracting the novel coronavirus and confronting his own health scare.

At his first campaign rally since being hospitalized for the virus, Trump told a Florida crowd on Monday that Biden has “a lot of bad days coming.”

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump ally, is pushing the president to make Harris a campaign centerpiece.

“If voters understand the totality of her radicalism, they would conclude that she would be a very high-risk person to put in the White House,” Gingrich said.

14 PHOTOS2020 vice presidential debate See Gallery2020 vice presidential debate (COMBO) This combination of pictures created on October 07, 2020 shows US Vice President Mike Pence and US Democratic vice presidential nominee and Senator from California Kamala Harris during the vice presidential debate in Kingsbury Hall at the University of Utah on October 7, 2020 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photos by Eric BARADAT and Robyn Beck / AFP) (Photo by ERIC BARADAT,ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH – OCTOBER 07: Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence participate in the vice presidential debate moderated by Washington Bureau Chief for USA Today Susan Page (C) at the University of Utah on October 7, 2020 in Salt Lake City, Utah. The vice presidential candidates only meet once to debate before the general election on November 3. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)US Democratic vice presidential nominee and Senator from California, Kamala Harris gestures as she speaks during the vice presidential debate in Kingsbury Hall at the University of Utah on October 7, 2020, in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP) (Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH – OCTOBER 07: Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence participate in the vice presidential debate moderated by Washington Bureau Chief for USA Today Susan Page (C) at the University of Utah on October 7, 2020 in Salt Lake City, Utah. The vice presidential candidates only meet once to debate before the general election on November 3. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)US Vice President Mike Pence speaks during the vice presidential debate in Kingsbury Hall at the University of Utah on October 7, 2020, in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Justin Sullivan / POOL / AFP) (Photo by JUSTIN SULLIVAN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)US Vice President Mike Pence Mike Pence gestures as he speaks during the vice presidential debate in Kingsbury Hall at the University of Utah on October 7, 2020, in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP) (Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH – OCTOBER 07: Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence participate in the vice presidential debate moderated by Washington Bureau Chief for USA Today Susan Page (C) at the University of Utah on October 7, 2020 in Salt Lake City, Utah. The vice presidential candidates only meet once to debate before the general election on November 3. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)Moderator and Washington bureau chief for USA Today Susan Page speaks during the vice presidential debate in Kingsbury Hall at the University of Utah on October 7, 2020, in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Morry Gash / POOL / AFP) (Photo by MORRY GASH/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH – OCTOBER 07: Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence participate in the vice presidential debate moderated by Washington Bureau Chief for USA Today Susan Page (C) at the University of Utah on October 7, 2020 in Salt Lake City, Utah. The vice presidential candidates only meet once to debate before the general election on November 3. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)US Vice President Mike Pence Mike Pence gestures as he speaks from behind a plexiglass barrier during the vice presidential debate in Kingsbury Hall at the University of Utah on October 7, 2020, in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP) (Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)(COMBO) This combination of pictures created on October 07, 2020 shows US Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic vice presidential nominee and Senator from California Kamala Harrisduring the vice presidential debate in Kingsbury Hall at the University of Utah on October 7, 2020, in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photos by Justin Sullivan / POOL / AFP) (Photo by JUSTIN SULLIVAN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH – OCTOBER 07:U.S. Vice President Mike Pence participates in the vice presidential debate against Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) at the University of Utah on October 7, 2020 in Salt Lake City, Utah. The vice presidential candidates only meet once to debate before the general election on November 3. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)US Vice President Mike Pence (L), US Democratic vice presidential nominee and Senator from California, Kamala Harris (R), moderator Washington Bureau Chief for USA Today Susan Page (C), participate in the vice presidential debate in Kingsbury Hall of the University of Utah October 7, 2020 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Justin Sullivan / POOL / AFP) (Photo by JUSTIN SULLIVAN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH – OCTOBER 07: Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) participates in the vice presidential debate against U.S. Vice President Mike Pence at the University of Utah on October 7, 2020 in Salt Lake City, Utah. The vice presidential candidates only meet once to debate before the general election on November 3. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)Up Next

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He went on to call Biden “docile” and Harris “aggressive.”

The sexism and racism associated with such language, including Trump’s reference to Harris as a “monster,” are aimed at Trump’s most loyal supporters.

“It is really an effort to say to their base, ‘Look, we don’t want a Black woman to be president,'” said Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. “‘We don’t want this Black person to take over in case something happens to Joe Biden.’”

Fudge said efforts to brand Harris as radical don’t align with her record, particularly on law enforcement. Harris and Fudge are both former prosecutors.

Republicans “consistently talk about law and order to the only person in this race that has a law-and-order background,” Fudge said.

Still, there are some signs that Trump’s message is resonating with his base.

“I’m scared that if Harris gets in, it will be a Harris administration ’cause old Joe’s got some issues,” said Bob Stanley, a retired orthopedic physician assistant who lives in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and said he will be voting again for Trump.

Joshua Dyck, an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, said the focus on Harris is a sign that Trump’s attacks on Biden aren’t working.

“This is a desire not to run against Joe Biden, to run against anybody but Joe Biden,” he said.

There’s little evidence that Trump’s strategy will change minds. While vice presidential picks generate buzz, they rarely sway voters, said Dyck, who also runs the UMass-Lowell’s Center for Public Opinion.

One exception may be 2008, when Republican John McCain chose little-known Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate. McCain was 72. A New York Times/CBS News poll taken just before the election found 59% of voters said Palin was not prepared to be president.

A vice presidential nominee’s ability to step in as commander in chief has long been a prime qualification for a running mate. Either the 77-year-old Biden or the 74-year-old Trump would become the oldest president ever inaugurated.

Biden last released medical records in December 2019, during the Democratic primary. Biden’s doctor called him “healthy, vigorous” and fit to execute the duties of the presidency. He takes a statin medication for cholesterol and has a “persistent” atrial fibrillation, a type of irregular heart beat. He takes a blood thinner to prevent risks like blood clots or stroke.

A Pew Research Center poll released in August found that among Biden supporters, 31% called his age or health a concern in an open-ended question. Just 1% of Trump’s supporters said the same about the president, though the survey was taken before Trump contracted the coronavirus.

Harris and Vice President Mike Pence deflected in last week’s debate when asked if they had conversations with Biden and Trump, respectively, about procedures in the event of presidential disability.

Harris did not address the question directly or speak to Biden’s health at all, instead pivoting to their shared values and her own political background, an implicit nod to her fitness for the top job if need be.

“I serve on the Senate Intelligence Committee, where I’ve been in regular receipt of classified information about threats to our nation and hot spots around the world. I’ve traveled the world. I’ve met with our soldiers,” she said.

It was a rare moment of Harris talking about herself. As typical for running mates, she regularly pivots to Biden’s record in a clear demonstration that he is the one running to lead the nation.

Biden and Harris can best respond to the attacks by focusing on their agenda and policies, said Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee of California. Other allies can denounce Trump’s comments, as the women of the Congressional Black Caucus recently did.

“There are those in the country who need to raise their voices and say this is un-American,” Lee said. “We cannot tolerate this in a multiracial country.”

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Associated Press writers Bill Barrow in Wilmington, Del., and Jill Colvin in Washington contributed to this report.

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