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“Pocahontas & Crooked Hillary” sounds like the name of a Disney movie. But the words are some of the slurs that Donald Trump has started hurling at the two most powerful women in the Democratic party – Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton – as he gears up for November’s presidential election.
During the Republican race, Mr Trump often said that his wife urged him to be presidential, but that he was forced to mock rivals such as “Lyin Ted” Cruz and”Little Marco” Rubio to close the deal. One month after in-effect securing the GOP nomination, he is increasingly applying the technique that helped him oust 16 Republican opponents ahead of his battle with Mrs Clinton, who is poised to become the Democratic nominee, and Mrs Warren, the firebrand Massachusetts senator.
For months, the Clinton campaign salivated at the idea of Mr Trump as the Republican nominee. But in recent weeks, some Clinton allies have grown concerned that she is underestimating the media-savvy tycoon and struggling to find his Achilles heel. Those concerns have been exacerbated by polls showing the two rivals running neck and neck.
Speaking at the Memorial day Rolling Thunder event in Washington on Sunday, Mr Trump told thousands of Harley-Davidson riding veterans that “we can’t have Hillary Clinton be our president”. Days before, he tweeted that “Crooked Hillary” was a “disaster” following a critical government report about her use of a personal email account while serving as secretary of state.
Mr Trump is trying to tap into the feeling among roughly two-thirds of voters that Mrs Clinton is not honest, but he has gone much further by resurrecting attacks from the years that Hillary and Bill Clinton were in the White House that range from conspiracies about the suicide of a business partner to unproven claims thatMr Clinton raped a woman.
“When you have two candidates possessing the highest unfavourable ratings of any major candidates nominated by their respective parties, you can expect that this will be a race to see who hits the bottom last,” said Kevin Madden, spokesman for Mitt Romney in the 2012 campaign. “Both candidates will believe it is in their interest to make sure that their opponent maintains a poisoned profile in the eyes of voters.”
Mr Trump has accused Mrs Clinton of being an “enabler” for her husband’s extramarital dalliances, in a bid to blunt her criticism of his record with women. She recently said she would not fall into the trap of responding, but his attacks have posed a conundrum. Her attempts to criticise him over policy have been drowned out by his controversial statements which help him dominate television media.
The Clinton team has tried to tarnish Mr Trump by highlighting his controversial comments about women, and criticising his failure to release his tax returns. Last week, she attacked him for saying years ago that he would gain from a housing crash. He deflected the attack – saying characteristically that that is what business people do – with the same Teflon coating that shielded him in the primaries.
One of the few Democrats who has been an effective attack dog is Mrs Warren, a former Harvard professor who he has called “Pocahontas” in response to her claim that she’s part native-American. After Mr Trump recently tweeted that “I find it offensive that Goofy Elizabeth Warren, sometimes referred to as Pocahontas, pretended to be Native American to get in Harvard”, she fired back: “Get your facts straight, @realDonaldTrump. I didn’t even go to Harvard.”
Norm Ornstein, a politics expert at the American Enterprise Institute, said: “Clinton is going after Trump more on issues and questions of his qualifications, and letting surrogates, especially Elizabeth Warren, do more heavy lifting and aggressive attacks on his persona and moral and business failings.”
Some Clinton allies say she needs to stop engaging Mr Trump on detail, such as the housing issue, and start assailing his character with more venom. But Mr Ornstein believes Mrs Clinton will continue with her current pattern of leaving the most abrasive attacks to others. These include Mrs Warren; David Brock, an aggressive Democratic political operative; and her eventual running mate.
But while the Clinton team debates the best way to confront Mr Trump, it is clear that Mrs Clinton faces a tougher general election than expected, against a candidate that her team never envisioned would be the nominee. The same tendency has been in evidence in the Democratic race where she failed to realise the potency of rival Bernie Sanders’ campaign, which has delayed her securing the nomination.
“Clinton starts off with a slight advantage. She has the demographic trends on her side and Trump has a higher negative rating than she does with the fastest-growing sectors of the electorate,” said Mr Madden. “But . . . if there is one thing Hillary Clinton has shown in her last two presidential runs, it’s that she knows how to lose big leads and squander advantages.”
- Demetri Savastopulo is covering the US election for the Financial Times of London,. You can follow him on Twitter via @DimiSevastopulo
(c) 2016 The Financial Times Ltd.