By Trevor Hunnicutt
(Reuters) - Joe Biden's U.S. presidential campaign and his Democratic Party allies have gone on an all-out offensive against President Donald Trump's coronavirus response, betting it will be a winning issue with American voters in November.
Just weeks ago, Democrats were treading carefully as Trump commanded the spotlight with his daily briefings on the virus, hesitant to avoid looking too partisan as the pandemic took its toll on jobs and health.
Now Democrats believe weeks of Trump's unfiltered media performances have done more harm than good for the Republican president seeking re-election on Nov. 3, and their aggressive response aims to expose what they see as his faulty handling of the crisis.
Biden's campaign team talking points accuse Trump of "one of the worst policy mistakes any president has made in our history." New campaign ads in battleground states say Trump failed to act on the coronavirus, which has now infected more than 977,500 Americans and killed more than 55,000, and call him overly trusting of China during the pandemic.
"This has given us an issue that is unifying across all walks of life," said Bradley Beychok, president of American Bridge 21st Century, a Democratic group funding some of the ads. "Trump's superpower is distraction. You can't distract from this."
More registered voters say they would support Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, over Trump, favouring the Democrat 47% to Trump's 39% in a Reuters/Ipsos poll released last week. Biden's lead has widened even as the coronavirus has forced him to isolate himself from the virus in his Delaware home, holding little-noticed briefings.
But voters are more closely split when polled on the health crisis. Reuters/Ipsos polling found that 52% of Americans said Biden was better equipped to steer the coronavirus response, while 48% favoured Trump. Trump, however, had an edge of 53% to Biden's 47% as the better leader to manage the U.S. economy.
Trump saw only a brief uptick in his overall approval rating early in the crisis, and some of his advisers have been alarmed by his undisciplined televised briefings.
Internal polling by the pro-Biden outside political group Priorities USA showed that, while the country remains deeply divided along partisan lines, there are signs that more people find fault with Trump's crisis management after earlier seeing his White House briefings as a show of his command of the issue.
"Initially the press conferences they were doing might have been benefiting the president because the consequences of his actions weren't clear and present," said Guy Cecil, chairman of Priorities. "Fast forward a month later, and you're now past 50,000 dead."
MORE FORCEFUL TACTICS
Biden's deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield has urged the more forceful tactics to counter Trump's message. She sent a memo last week to supporters outlining four Cs to use as points of attack: Trump's cosiness with the Chinese government, cover-up of the crisis, chaos in responding, and corporate favouritism in how stimulus money was distributed.
The campaign also ramped up its Facebook and Google ads, spending more than Trump did during the week of April 12-18, according to Acronym, a liberal nonprofit group.
A Biden campaign video released on Friday shows Trump at a recent briefing saying, "nobody wants to take care of me," while statistics flash about the rising U.S. death toll and unemployment claims surpassing 26 million.
"Mr. President, it's not about you," the ad concludes. "It's about America."
"We are witnessing one of the worst failures of leadership by a president in our country's history, and that's the only thing that will be on voters' minds this fall," Biden campaign spokesman TJ Ducklo said of the new approach.
Trump allies recently launched their own videos criticizing Biden's favourable comments about China and touting Trump's travel restrictions on the country.
"The President is boldly leading the nation in the war against the coronavirus while Joe Biden is snipping from the sidelines," Ken Farnaso, a Trump campaign spokesman, said in an emailed statement. "Biden is attempting to undermine the Administration's unifying response, instilling fear with his message of uncertainty."
Some Democrats remain worried about criticising a sitting president in a time of crisis. They see an advantage in Biden maintaining a statesman's role while his supporters go in for the kill.
That quality helped the former vice president make it through the Democratic primary race without alienating too many voters. His opponents later endorsed him.
Others are eager for a tougher approach.
"Trump, who has bet his campaign on the economy, is uniquely vulnerable," said Jim Manley, a longtime adviser to Democrats, including former U.S. Senator Harry Reid, a Biden ally. "If the elections were held today, it's pretty obvious that the president would lose. The problem is the elections aren't today. Democrats should be pressing him harder."
(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt in New York; Additional reporting by Chris Kahn; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Howard Goller)