By Ginger Gibson and Simon Lewis
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The crowded field of Democratic presidential candidates were nearly unanimous in praising House Democrats' decision to begin an impeachment inquiry into Republican President Donald Trump over accusations he sought foreign help to smear a political rival.
Now comes the hard part.
With impeachment set to overshadow the Democratic presidential primary race, how will candidates draw attention to their key policy issues, ranging from universal healthcare to income inequality?
After months of resisting pressure from fellow Democrats, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the launch of a formal impeachment effort on Tuesday, accusing Trump of seeking foreign help to damage Democratic presidential front-runner Joe Biden ahead of the November 2020 election.
Trump had pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in a July 25 phone call to investigate Biden and his son Hunter, who had worked for a company drilling for gas in Ukraine.
The impeachment inquiry ensures a partisan fight in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail in the coming months.
Kurt Meyer, Democratic party chairman for three rural Iowa counties north of Des Moines, the state's most populous city, said he expects the impeachment proceedings to energize the Democratic base.
"If a highly motivated person drags her mother and her husband and her second cousin twice removed to the polls, then it makes a difference," Meyer said.
But in a sign the probe could energize Trump's base as well, his re-election campaign raised a quarter of a million dollars in just 15 minutes on Tuesday in the immediate aftermath of Pelosi's announcement about the probe.
Trump was quick to portray himself as the victim of partisan Democratic attacks, while his campaign sent repeated fundraising appeals to his supporters on Tuesday pegged to the impeachment launch.
There is also a risk that any substantive policy discussions among the 19 Democrats running for the party's nomination to take on Trump in the 2020 election will be drowned out in the growing battle between allies and foes of Trump, several Democratic strategists and experts said.
"Trump has been the elephant in the room, but the democratic debates so far have been really policy centered. I think impeachment now takes center stage," said Erin O’Brien, associate professor of political science at University of Massachusetts, Boston.
Doug Heye, a Republican strategist who worked with congressional leaders, said Republican messaging just got simpler, if less positive.
"For Democrats running for president, breaking through on healthcare or the economy just got a lot tougher," he said. "Impeachment will be the dominant topic for a long time."
'SUBJECT OF TRUMP'S AFFECTION'
Biden, who leads polls in the Democratic race to pick a challenger to Trump, said on Tuesday he would back impeachment if the Republican president fails to comply with congressional requests for information on Ukraine and other matters.
Trump has raised unsubstantiated charges that Biden improperly tried to halt a Ukrainian probe of a company with ties to his son, without providing any evidence of wrongdoing by either.
Later on Tuesday as he called into a fundraiser in Baltimore, Maryland, Biden said he "can take these attacks".
“And the reason I am being attacked is that most polls show me beating him by 10 to 15 points. I am not at all surprised I have become the object of his affection and attention," he said.
Biden leads Trump by about 5 percentage points in a hypothetical general election match-up against Trump, according to the Sept. 23-24 Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll released on Tuesday.
In a sign that Biden's supporters are largely standing by their candidate so far, 20% of Democrats and independents said they would vote for him in statewide nominating contests that begin next year according to the latest poll, up 1 percentage point from a similar poll that ran last week.
But the same poll also showed that Americans overall are less supportive of impeaching Trump than they were months ago, highlighting a risk of the move backfiring on Democrats if they are seen overreaching.
"On one level, this whole issue helps Biden, because it makes the president look afraid of Biden," said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia. "But the president has a great ability to drag people into the mud with him, and you wonder if that might happen to Biden."
Biden's Democratic rivals, including U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris, are set to benefit if the front-runner falls off. But most have so far refused to be drawn into specific questions about Biden and his family, and are likely to stay that way for now.
"On the one hand they want to see Biden struggle, but it might undermine the party overall in a general election," Kondik said.
Warren, who edged past Sanders for the first time to rank second behind Biden in the latest Reuters/Ipsos poll with 14 % support, said on Twitter the impeachment inquiry was "an overdue but important step."
"No one is above the law—not even the president of the United States," Warren said, without mentioning Biden. "Thank you to everyone who protested, organized, and asked the crucial questions to get us to this moment.
So far, Trump has proven remarkably resilient in the face of repeated scandals and retaining strong support from Republicans.
Democrats should act swiftly to convince voters their actions are necessary - and prevent Trump from successfully arguing he is being unfairly prosecuted, said Joel Payne, a Democratic strategist who advised Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.
Rebecca Cordova, 62, from the suburbs of Austin, Texas, who describes herself as an independent but voted for Trump in 2016, said it would take strong evidence of wrongdoing to dissuade her from voting for him again.
“I think the Democrats are just blowing smoke. They’re just trying to start something up like they did with (Russia)," she said, referring to former special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
"I don’t believe the Russians helped and I don’t believe any of this with the Ukrainians, sorry."
(Reporting by Ginger Gibson and Simon Lewis; Additional reporting by Jim Oliphant, Tim Reid and Sharon Bernstein. Editing by Soyoung Kim and Lincoln Feast.)