Trump, struggling to define Biden, steps up Harris attacks

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Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., listens to the Florida Memorial University marching band Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Donald Trump barely mentioned Tim Kaine when he was the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2016. But four years later, the president has plenty to say about Kamala Harris.

Trump said this week that “nobody likes” Harris, feeding into a standard of likability that is applied to women in leadership far more often than men. He told voters in North Carolina it would be “an insult to our country” if Harris became the first female president. And Trump and his allies repeatedly mispronounce Harris' first name, a pattern her supporters say amounts to a deliberate effort to portray the daughter of immigrants as someone who does not belong at the top ranks of politics.

Trump is focusing on Harris as he has sometimes struggled to land on a consistent, coherent attack against Biden, who has built a reputation as a bipartisan deal maker rather than a progressive ideologue. And the racism and sexism underlying Trump's critique of the first Black woman and person of Asian descent on a major party ticket are part of an aggressive strategy to appeal to white suburban voters.

“It’s hard to see that as not somehow tied to what you view as ‘our country,’” said Kelly Dittmar, director of research and scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics.

For her part, Harris has been sharp in her criticism of Trump, but has largely limited her comments to the president's job performance. Campaigning in Miami on Thursday, she called Trump “reckless” for downplaying the potential toll of the coronavirus while privately describing it as “deadly stuff.”

Tim Murtaugh, communications director for the Trump campaign, made clear that Biden, not Harris, would remain their main focus. But he leaned into the argument that Harris was one of the radical forces now steering the nominee.

“Kamala Harris and her voting record helps make the case against Joe Biden,” Murtaugh said.

The strategy could be risky for Trump. Black voters already overwhelmingly support Biden and sustained criticism of Harris could fuel their enthusiasm to show up in November, potentially swaying the election in states such as North Carolina, Florida, Pennsylvania and Michigan. A Harris spokeswoman declined to comment on Trump's latest attacks.