WASHINGTON – During a busy night of Republican response to debating Democrats, President Donald Trump first took a low-key approach by saying he respected his opponents – but later mocked frontrunners Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren with scathing nicknames.
"I hit Pocahontas way too early," Trump said, referring to Warren while speaking to a group of House Republicans. "I thought she was gone – she’s emerged from the ashes. And now it looks like she can beat Sleepy Joe (Biden). ... He has no idea what’s going on."
Trump also threw in a jab at South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg: “He’s doing a rotten job running his own city.”
As the president spoke Thursday in Baltimore, Democrats who debated in Houston accused Trump of fomenting racism by attacking people of color and denouncing immigrants as invaders. Former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke described Trump as a "white supremacist" who poses a "mortal threat" to the country, particularly minorities.
Trump's trip to the House Republican retreat in Maryland forced him to miss most of the debate.
“It’s too bad," Trump told reporters as he left the White House. "I look forward to going home. We're going to have to watch it as a rerun."
Taking a more low-key approach before his speech, Trump said the 10 Democrats on the stage in Houston "all have their weaknesses and strengths."
While Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders are moving up in the polls, Trump said he still sees Biden as the favorite for the nomination. "I would imagine Biden would be able to make it if he doesn't make any major mistakes," he said. "We'll see what happens."
In contrast to his frequent attacks on the Democrats who want to replace him, Trump said earlier Thursday he respects "every one" of them. "It takes a lot of courage to run for office," he said.
Trump then joked: "See that? I'm getting to be much better as a politician. You never thought you'd hear that answer."
During the debate, as Trump spoke to the House Republicans, his campaign tweeted out and emailed criticisms of various Democratic statements on issues like health care, border security, gun rights and race relations.
"Thanks to President Trump, black Americans are making historic progress and enjoying growing opportunities," the Trump campaign said in one email.
After the debate, Trump aides declared themselves the victors.
"You know what the Democrats have barely touched?" said Andrew Clark, the campaign's director of rapid response. "The Trump economy. Because the Trump economy is awesome."
Republicans prepped for their debate response throughout the day, taking to the pages of Texas newspapers as well as the skies above Houston, where the debate is being held.
The Trump campaign sponsored planes carrying banners with messages like: “SOCIALISM WILL KILL HOUSTON’S ECONOMY! VOTE TRUMP 2020." It also took out ads in Houston and San Antonio newspapers assailing the Democrats in general.
“Every single Democrat candidate has job killing, economy crushing policies that won’t work for America,” said Erin Perrine, Trump campaign deputy communications director.
The Democrats criticized Trump's leadership on those occasions, and did so again Thursday. In a pre-debate tweet, Biden cited the administration's plan to take money from the military budget to finance an anti-migration wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
"President Trump’s decision to take billions from the military to build his wall is an unabashed abuse of power," Biden said. "It endangers the American people and forfeits investments in our future, security, and children – all to score political points."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Donald Trump says he respects Democrats, then blasts Biden and Warren