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WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump and his campaign are pushing ahead with efforts to attack former Vice President Joe Biden’s mental fitness, despite polling and guidance from advisers warning that the strategy could backfire.
Campaign aides had been making the case that focusing on Biden’s mental acumen wasn’t the best strategy, even showing polling to reporters explaining why it wasn’t the right approach, said a person close to the campaign. But Trump has overridden that sentiment, pushing for attack ads that portray the presumptive Democratic nominee as senile, according to two people familiar with the matter.
The campaign has been running a fresh batch of Facebook ads this week with titles such as “Joe Biden is clearly diminished,” “Joe Biden is slipping,” and “Do you think Joe Biden has the mental fortitude to be president?” And over the past week, Trump, his top advisers and family members have promoted videos portraying Biden as confused and stumbling over his words.
Trump campaign aides say to expect the line of attack to be a steady drumbeat throughout the rest of the race.
"Biden would be the oldest sitting president if elected. His mental sharpness is fair game," said a person familiar with the plans.
The push comes despite increasing warnings from Republican strategists that the message stands to backfire in several ways: It risks turning off senior voters who see it as mocking them, say some GOP strategists, and opens the door for the Biden campaign to fire back with attacks on Trump’s own gaffes.
The campaign also runs the risk of setting the bar too low for Biden, 77, by portraying him as someone who should be confined to a nursing home — a frequent attack line by Trump, 74.
“If Trump keeps beating the cognitive drum and Biden shows up and completes sentences at the debate, it's game over,” said Mark McKinnon, George W. Bush’s chief media adviser in 2004.
Biden has already shown his ability to win over voters on the debate stage in the 11 Democratic debates he participated in to clinch his party’s nomination. While one Trump campaign adviser criticized Biden’s debate skills, he acknowledged the former vice president hadn’t given the fumbling performance one would expect based on the president’s attack ads — presenting a real risk that the re-election team could be mismanaging expectations.
"If the Trump campaign believes the answer to their precipitously dropping support is to triple-down on yet another smear that's backfired on them for over a year, then frankly, maybe it's not just Donald Trump who's missing something — but also his campaign," Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates said in a statement.
Defenders of the strategy say their aim is to create a continuing pulse of accusations over Biden’s mental fitness that leaves an unease among voters over his ability to hold the office, part of a broader messaging strategy to convince voters they would not be safe under a Biden presidency.
“Every time Joe Biden speaks, there are questions raised about his fitness for office,” said Jason Miller, a Trump campaign communications adviser. “Voters have already begun picking up on this, and that is going to continue for as long as Joe Biden keeps talking.”
The message also dovetails with another frequent line of attack: that Biden isn't sharp enough to avoid becoming an unwitting puppet of the far left, said a person familiar with the matter.
It's a strategy with echoes of 2016, when Trump and his allies took a similar approach to rival Hillary Clinton, fueling a range of conspiracy theories about her health.
Trump’s campaign is in need of jolt to break Biden’s advantage in the polls after a string of failed reboots. Biden’s lead over Trump nationally has jumped to 9 points, compared to a 5-point advantage at the end of May, and with the president trailing in seven key battleground states, according to the Real Clear Politics polling average.
Trump’s numbers have been particularly weak among seniors, whom strategists say may not be receptive to ads that appear to be mocking someone for not being as sharp as they were 20 years ago.
Trump — the mastermind of mocking nicknames for rivals and opponents, such as "Crooked Hillary," "Little Marco," and "Pocahontas" — has struggled to find a similarly defining slogan for Biden. Advisers have suggested that “Sleepy Joe” might not be the most politically damaging choice, but after rolling through a string of alternatives, like “Swampy Joe” and “Creepy Joe,” Trump appears to have circled back to that option for the moment.
Trump’s allies argue it’s past time to ramp up the attacks on Biden, given the huge and growing deficit the president faces in the polls. They also argue that Democrats have raised questions about Trump's mental vitality for years, making that area of discussion valid for Biden as well.
“The Trump campaign is in the place where they need to do everything they can do,” said former Trump campaign aide Sam Nunberg. “They squandered the three pivotal months the incumbent has to assault and destroy the opponent.”
But the senility argument can cut both ways, as the summer has suggested, with Trump’s critics using the same line of attack against him. One day after a video showed Trump slowly descending a ramp at West Point and awkwardly drinking a glass of water, the anti-Trump Lincoln Project PAC turned the clips into an ad challenging Trump’s vitality, with the slogan “Trump is not well.”
Doubling down on the strategy last week, Trump tried to draw a contrast with Biden by touting his own ability to "ace" a dementia screening test that asks patients to identify a rhinoceros and tell time.
“Candidates should be careful about attacking opponents on an issue where they may have their own liabilities,” McKinnon said. “There is plenty of tape the Biden campaign can replay of Trump appearing to have cognitive issues.”