CINCINNATI — In a state he hopes to capture again next November, President Donald Trump on Thursday accused his “extremist left-wing” opponents of ruining America’s inner cities — escalating his attacks against influential progressive voices and painting the Democratic presidential primary as a referendum on Barack Obama’s legacy.
“I was watching the Democrats’ debate last night … and the Democrats spent more time attacking Barack Obama than they did attacking me,” Trump said at a crowded rally here.
It was Trump’s first trip to Cincinnati for a campaign event since he warned voters on the eve of the 2018 midterm elections that Democrats would “take a wrecking ball” to the U.S. economy if they won control of the House of Representatives. He painted the same bleak picture for his supporters on Thursday, claiming that a Democratic victory next fall would subject Ohioans to higher taxes, fewer jobs and “socialist” policies that could make the U.S. unrecognizable.
“The rage-filled Democrat Party is trying to tear America apart. The Democrat Party is now being led by four left-wing extremists who reject everything that we believe in,” Trump said, referencing the four first-term congresswomen of color — Reps. Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib — whom he targeted in a series of tweets last month.
“No one has paid a higher price for the far left’s destructive agenda than Americans living in our inner cities,” he added.
Campaign advisers said the president views this campaign stop as an opportunity to reset the narrative following back-to-back Democratic primary debates this week in Detroit. Nearly every candidate excoriated Trump for stirring up racial animus, in addition to criticizing his trade, health care and immigration policies.
The president has alternated his attacks against Democratic rivals over the past few months, often directing his ire toward whichever candidate is dominating the news cycle that week or gaining ground in primary polls. But on Thursday, Trump specifically went after Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who drew praise for her debate performance this week.
“She’s lying and cheating her way through” the presidential primary, Trump said. “She defrauded people with her credentials. She said, ‘I’m Indian,’ and I said, ‘I have more Indian blood than she does and I have none. I’m sorry.’”
He also mocked former Vice President Joe Biden, 76, for his age, suggesting the current Democratic front-runner would be taken advantage of as president because he as “no clue what the hell he is doing.”
“They’d say, ‘Sleepy Joe, Sir, just sign right there,’” Trump said, mimicking White House staffers.
Trump’s team previewed his message in a statement earlier Thursday that sought to underscore his appeal in the industrial Midwest — and mocked Democrats for handing him “another win” with their onstage bickering.
“Plenty of socialist stupidity — eliminating private insurance, decriminalizing border crossings, higher taxes, getting rid of fossil fuels,” campaign spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany said in a statement.
“Goodbye Pennsylvania. Goodbye auto industry. Goodbye Midwest,” she added.
Melinda Soliz, a Cincinnati native who tuned in to parts of the Democratic debates, said she was less than impressed with the candidates. But, she added, “Biden was OK, I guess.” Soliz said she’s loyal to Trump — for now.
“If the situation changes with the economy, I could change my mind,” Soliz told POLITICO before the rally began.
In recent days, Trump has left some allies feeling uneasy about his connection to voters in America’s heartland. His return to racial politics has done little to boost his approval in the suburbs of Rust Belt cities that many white working-class voters and union members — two demographics that the Trump campaign is targeting — consider home.
One poll released last Thursday, on the heels of the president’s attacks on the four minority congresswomen and before his weekend Twitter rant against Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), found Democratic front-runner Joe Biden besting the president in Ohio by 8 percentage points — 50 to 42 percent — in a hypothetical general election matchup.
Other polls conducted over the past two weeks have shown the president receiving high marks for the state of the economy, while highlighting voters’ broad disapproval of his racially charged rhetoric. Even among Trump’s supporters, a Fox News survey found a 17-point decline from August 2017 to present of those who believe he respects racial minorities.
But Trump campaign officials say they’re optimistic about capturing voters who disagree with his rhetoric, yet struggle to stomach some of the far-left policies presented by his Democratic opponents. As long as progressive Democrats maintain their current positions on immigration, taxes and health care, aides say, Trump can use them to his advantage.
It’s precisely what Trump sought to do when he took the stage in Cincinnati. Standing before an adoring crowd in the U.S. Bank Arena, he ticked through cultural issues and cast the Democratic Party as far “outside the mainstream.”
“Democrats are now the party of high taxes, high crime, late-term abortion, and they’re the party, frankly, of socialism,” he said.
As he worked through themes that have become a staple of his 2020 campaign, Trump was careful to avoid the same lines that led supporters at a rally last week to chant, “Send her back,” at the mention of Omar (D-Minn.). Prior to arriving here, Trump said he would “prefer” that his fans avoid the chant Thursday night.
“I didn’t care for that. It’s inappropriate,” said Soliz, the Cincinnati native.
Another part of the Trump campaign’s strategy in swing states like Ohio includes forming various coalition groups whose members will serve as pro-Trump surrogates in their communities. The campaign has already announced a women’s coalition and Latino coalition, and has plans to unveil an African American coalition this summer.
“‘Women for Trump’ will not only highlight the president’s clear record of success during his first term, but will share a vision of empowerment and prosperity for every person in every corner of our country,” Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law, said of the coalition she spearheads.
There are some in Trump’s camp who, in addition to congressional Republican leaders, want the president to trade his divisive commentary on race and immigration for safer talking points on jobs and the economy. A reminder of their preference hung behind the president as he took the stage on Thursday: Two enormous red banners hung high above Trump’s head with “JOBS! JOBS! JOBS!” emblazoned across them.
Thursday could have been an ideal opportunity for Trump to tout such progress. Just hours before he arrived here, the Senate passed a two-year budget deal with bipartisan support that erases the threat of a debt default until after the election next year and increases military and domestic spending by $320 billion over the two years. Trump is expected to sign the bill into law.
Trump carried Ohio, a battleground state with 18 electoral votes, by 8 points over Hillary Clinton in 2016. His current approval rating in the state could paint a grim picture, though, as he seeks a second term. Fifty percent of Ohio voters in a June poll by Morning Consult said they disapproved of Trump’s job performance, compared with 46 percent who gave the president high marks.