September 27, 2019 / 12:22 AM / 3 months ago

Biden looks to Ukraine flap to jolt his 2020 presidential campaign

WASHINGTON/SAN MARINO, Calif. (Reuters) - Joe Biden, courting donors at a fundraiser in California on Thursday, began his remarks by reading directly from a whistleblower’s complaint that President Donald Trump sought foreign interference in the 2020 election.

FILE PHOTO: Former U.S. Vice President and Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden makes a statement during an event in Wilmington, Delaware, U.S., September 24, 2019. REUTERS/Bastiaan Slabbers/File Photo

As Trump faces an impeachment inquiry over his demands that his Ukrainian counterpart investigate Biden, his top Democratic rival is striving to turn the growing political crisis to his advantage, raking in donations and taking to national television to make his case to voters that he is the Democrat best able to beat Trump next year.

A whistleblower report released on Thursday alleged that Trump not only abused his office in attempting to solicit Ukraine’s interference in next year’s election for his own political benefit, but that the White House also tried to “lock down” evidence about that conduct.

Trump has denied wrongdoing.

“This isn’t about me,” Biden told a few dozen guests gathered by a backyard swimming pool to hear the candidate at the fundraiser in San Marino, California.

“It’s a tactic that’s used by this president to try to hijack an election so we do not focus on the issues that matter in our lives.”

The Ukraine flap comes at a crucial moment for the former vice president.

The Democratic favorite throughout much of the race, Biden has seen his support erode in recent weeks, with U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren emerging as the candidate with the greatest momentum and drawing close to Biden in several national polls.

Trump has repeatedly insisted, without evidence, that Biden used his influence as vice president to kill an investigation of a Ukrainian energy company of which his son Hunter was a board member.

The controversy has allowed Biden to portray himself as Trump’s top target, bolstering his long-standing argument that he is the candidate the president fears most.

“Trump is afraid of facing Joe next fall,” one text sent to supporters read. “Chip in now to defend Joe Biden.”

The campaign enjoyed its best week of fundraising since early in the race, aides said, without providing specific figures.

“The reason I am being attacked is that most polls show me beating him by 10 to 15 points,” Biden told a crowd at another fundraiser in Baltimore earlier this week. “I am not at all surprised I have become the object of his affection and attention.”

A day earlier, Biden had delivered a blistering indictment of Trump in a nationally televised speech and he appeared on Wednesday on a late-night network talk show. For the moment, at least, Warren and the other 17 candidates running for the Democratic nomination have been rendered afterthoughts.

Biden’s calendar has been packed with previously scheduled fundraising events all week. On Friday, he will hold a campaign event in the early primary state of Nevada.

Rick Tyler, a Republican strategist who worked for U.S. Senator Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign, said Trump’s outreach to Ukraine “reinforces Biden’s strongest underlying message, which is that he is the only candidate who can beat Donald Trump and even Donald Trump thinks so – and the lengths Trump will go to eliminate him now because he sees him as the biggest threat.”

TOLL AND TRIAL

Trump and his allies have signaled, however, that they plan to continue accusing Biden of wrongdoing

Trump has pushed that narrative this week even as the impeachment inquiry moves forward, and a pro-Trump group, Great America PAC, is backing it up with an ad blitz.

“This is a Joe Biden scandal that Democrats and their media allies are trying to remake into a Donald Trump problem,” said Tim Murtaugh, communications director for the Trump re-election campaign.

The focus on Ukraine and Biden could take a toll on the Biden campaign, said Rodell Mollineau, a former Democratic top aide to U.S. Senate leadership.

“It looks like his numbers were sliding a bit before, and I don’t think this helps,” Mollineau said. “And because he’s in a primary, he doesn’t have the whole Democratic machine rallying to his defense.”

Since Biden entered the race in April, Trump routinely has derided him as “sleepy” and “not very bright” and publicly dismissed him as a threat.

But Trump’s campaign has long viewed Biden as a danger because of his capacity to attract the kind of union and working-class voters in the Midwest who also are drawn to Trump. It has sought to weaken his candidacy at several turns, with the president’s phone call with Ukraine only the most recent example.

The campaign realized early on that with his moderate voting record, it would be harder to paint Biden as a “socialist” in the manner of Warren or U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, a Republican strategist close to the Trump campaign said.

Instead, it has gone after issues such as trade with China and Biden’s foreign policy record as No. 2 to former President Barack Obama.

The Ukraine matter is yet more evidence that Biden remains the opponent that Trump would still rather avoid, Biden’s campaign said.

“It’s so transparent,” one Biden aide told Reuters, “it’s laughable.”

Reporting by Ginger Gibson and James Oliphant in Washington and Tim Reid in California; Editing by Soyoung Kim and Peter Cooney

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