Biden, eager for rematch in November, is quick to anoint Trump as his 2024 rival

President Joe Biden speaks at the Earth Rider Brewery, Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024, in Superior, Wis. Biden is returning to the swing state of Wisconsin to announce 5 billion in federal funding for upgrading the Blatnik Bridge and for dozens of similar infrastructure projects nationwide. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

President Joe Biden speaks at the Earth Rider Brewery, Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024, in Superior, Wis. Biden is returning to the swing state of Wisconsin to announce 5 billion in federal funding for upgrading the Blatnik Bridge and for dozens of similar infrastructure projects nationwide. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) Alex Brandon

By SEUNG MIN KIM and ZEKE MILLER

Associated Press

Published: 01-25-2024 3:51 PM

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden is zeroing in on an expected rematch against Donald Trump after this week’s New Hampshire primaries, eager to sharpen the contrast with his predecessor.

Ten months from Election Day, Biden’s write-in victory in a New Hampshire race he didn’t formally contest put a fork in any plausible path to deny him a second turn at the Democratic nomination. Now Biden and his team want to clarify the choice voters will face, believing that the stakes of the election, and Trump’s solidifying grip on the GOP, will appeal to voters in the center and reinvigorate his base.

While many in the country have hoped for different choices in November, Biden decidedly is not one of them. He sees a rematch with Trump as both his easiest path to reelection and a validation of his decision, at 81, to seek another four-year term.

Biden wasted no time trying to anoint Trump as his head-on rival after the Republican’s decisive victory in the New Hampshire primary, which came on the heels of a romp in the Iowa caucuses a week earlier.

Presidential historian Julian Zelizer of Princeton University said the Biden campaign believes it can paint Trump as a very real threat because of the Republican’s past record in the Oval Office.

“He’s not an incumbent, but he was president,” said Zelizer. “You have a traditional incumbent saying Opponent X is dangerous for the country, it’s all theoretical. Here, you’re talking about someone who’s been in the White House.”

Biden faces no shortage of headwinds going into the general election season — low approval ratings, widespread concern about his age, multiplying tensions abroad and plenty of discontent at home, including from disenchanted young people and minorities who were key to his first victory. But his campaign has crafted a rejoinder to each count — the answers often circling back to Trump himself.

Indeed, Biden’s team has long anticipated that the upcoming contest would be an even more bruising rematch of the 2020 race and they have largely ignored other GOP White House aspirants. On Tuesday, he shifted two key aides from the White House to the campaign to oversee the effort against Trump and scored an endorsement from the United Auto Workers union Wednesday with no shortage of jabs at his predecessor.

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They’ve launched campaign ads and raised money heavily off the prospect of another Trump presidency, and aides say that’s only a preview of an even more intensive effort to come to remind Americans of what life was like under Trump’s presidency and what he would do with another four years.

Biden campaign officials are confident that Trump will not win back voters he lost last time, particularly as the former president continues to deny the results of the 2020 election, defends those who perpetrated violence against police officers during the Jan. 6 insurrection and advocates what Democrats have framed as extremist tendencies and rhetoric.

“His agenda is toxic and voters aren’t buying what he’s selling,” Biden deputy campaign manager Quentin Fulks said Wednesday. “Trump performed worse among suburban and college-educated Republicans, the group of voters that have been pivotal to Democratic victories in 2020, 2022 and 2023. He failed to increase his vote share among voters under 30, a group that will be key to the outcome in November.”

While Biden’s team sees Trump’s coalition as fraying, they’re focused on stitching together their own coalition around issues like abortion access, health care and gun control. They’re also hoping that fears about Trump returning to power will paper over real differences on issues like Biden’s support for Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza.

Asking how he would maintain Arab-American support in light of his staunch support for Israel, Biden told reporters last week: “The former president wants to put a ban on Arabs coming into the country.” He added that the campaign will make sure people “understand who cares about the Arab population.”

The Biden campaign has spent much of its early energy working out how to motivate what it has termed its “sporadic” voters — those who are traditionally supportive of Democrats in a presidential year yet at this point in the contest, have not been focused on day-to-day political news and machinations.

Those voters, the Biden campaign believes, will ultimately back the incumbent president once the stakes of a Biden-Trump rematch are made clear. And that task, according to campaign officials, will be fundamentally easier because they don’t have to conjure up what a hypothetical president would do. Instead, Trump has an actual record they can point to.

“I mean, this is not an election of nuance or subtlety. It’s the old, you know, good versus evil,” said Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa. “All voters know what Trump is, who he is, and what he stands for, and the way he behaves.”

While Trump won in Iowa and New Hampshire, the contests exposed his vulnerabilities with the broader electorate, according to data from AP VoteCast. He lagged in support among college graduates, people living in the suburbs and self-identified moderates. In New Hampshire, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley won 6 in 10 college graduates. She also won 6 in 10 moderates and split the suburbs with Trump.

Trump “has a rock-solid base of about 40%, but to win, you have to get to 51,” said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., a co-chairman of Biden’s reelection campaign. “I think the outcome of the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primaries shows real challenges for Trump in the months ahead.”

The other major plank of the Biden campaign strategy is to continue to promote the president’s legislative achievements during his first term, and ensure that voters can connect tangible changes such as cheaper insulin costs and infrastructure investments in their communities to Biden himself.

“There’s always the concern that a rematch is like a rerun; it’s never as exciting as the first time,” said Democratic Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, a battleground state that Biden visited Thursday to tout $5 billion in federal money to replace the deteriorating John A. Blatnik Memorial Bridge and other infrastructure projects. But “the president has real accomplishments that I haven’t seen a president have in recent memory.”

Highlighting that work is also the campaign’s main strategy to combat voter concerns and political attacks about Biden’s age. Campaign officials, clearly unable to reverse the president’s advanced age, are making a bet that voters will ultimately care more about what Biden has done than when he was born.

Ahead of the primaries, there were concerns that the economy would be a drag on Biden in the election. But as inflation has eased and job growth continues, some voters are giving Biden credit for his handling of the U.S. economy.

Roughly 8 in 10 Democratic voters in the New Hampshire primary favored his economic leadership, according to the AP VoteCast survey. That approval is slightly better than among Democrats surveyed nationally in earlier polling by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs.

About 9 in 10 Democratic primary voters in New Hampshire said they would vote for Biden in November.

That compared to about 6 in 10 Republican primary voters in the state who said they would vote for Trump in the general election. That number may be lower in part because of the greater participation of unaffiliated voters, who could vote in either primary, on the more competitive Republican side. Still, even among registered Republicans, about 2 in 10 said they would not support Trump in November.