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Trump’s conviction prompts election-year debate among Democrats: How much to focus on the verdict?

BRISTOL, Pa. (AP) — Inside his Delaware headquarters, President Joe Biden’s campaign is signaling it will incorporate Donald Trump’s recent felony conviction as a core element of the Democratic incumbent’s reelection message.

But in nearby battleground Pennsylvania, a state that could decide control of Congress and the presidency this fall, Democrats are far from certain that Trump’s criminal record matters to voters at all.

It’ll have an effect, but a fairly small effect,” former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell said of Trump’s recent 34 felony convictions in the New York hush money case. “I don’t think we can count on it. We’ve got to get out and win the election talking about the things that are important.”

Less than a week after Trump became the first U.S. president ever convicted of a felony, Biden’s Democratic Party has only just begun to navigate the delicate politics of the presumptive Republican nominee’s unprecedented legal status.

There are key voices within Biden’s campaign headquarters who believe that Democrats should lean into Trump’s conviction as a significant turning point in politics and history. Others favor a more cautious approach, fearful of a voter backlash if Democratic officials push too hard on a criminal conviction that Trump insists, without evidence, was “rigged” against him.

The Democrats’ decision could prove pivotal in the evolving Biden-Trump rematch — and in the battle for control of the House and Senate.

The bottom line: On Wednesday, a Biden campaign senior adviser, granted anonymity to discuss internal strategy, said Trump’s felony conviction would become a regular part of the campaign’s message. But it will be part of a broader context in which the campaign will argue Trump doesn’t respect the U.S. election process or the judicial system.

On Tuesday, Vice President Kamala Harris appeared on ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and deflected a light-hearted question about whether the people she watched the verdict with were “pretending to not be happy” when the conviction was announced.

She kept a straight face even as Kimmel and the audience laughed. Instead, Harris discussed the case and the jury’s deliberations before adding, “I think the reality is cheaters don’t like getting caught and being held accountable.”

Democratic pollster John Anzalone, who advises Biden’s campaign, pushed back against those warning of political risks should the president and down-ballot Democrats overplay their hand.

“The guy was convicted of 34 counts. How do you overplay that?” Anzalone said of Trump. “This conviction makes voters really queasy.”

Anzalone continued: “Democrats know that they still need to talk about the future and what they have done to help American families and the economy. But at the end of the day, this (conviction) is a big deal.”

There is no sense that Biden will abandon other campaign priorities as he leans into Trump’s legal trouble.

In fact, the Democratic president on Tuesday announced plans to enact immediate significant restrictions on migrants seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border as the White House tries to neutralize immigration as a political liability. He’s also focusing on the GOP push to further erode abortion rights while promoting his moves to curb inflation, reduce prescription drug costs and improve the nation’s infrastructure.

And in her interview with Kimmel, Harris pivoted from talking about the case to mentioning Biden’s efforts to reduce drug prices and cap the cost of insulin for some Americans.

Trump campaign senior adviser Jason Miller dismissed questions about Biden’s evolving strategy and instead pointed to the criminal trial of Biden’s son, Hunter, who is facing three felony charges stemming from the purchase of a gun in October 2018 and has separately been trailed by allegations that he traded on his family name to do business abroad.

“Crooked Joe Biden will do anything to distract from Hunter’s trial and the fact his family has raked in tens of millions of dollars from China, Russia and Ukraine,” Miller said. “The Biden Family Criminal Empire is all coming to an end on Nov. 5th, and never again will a Biden sell government access for personal profit.”

The rest of the Democratic Party may ultimately follow Biden’s lead on Trump’s conviction, but as Biden’s campaign quietly unveiled its intentions to focus at least somewhat on it, Democratic leaders were still offering a cautious outlook.

In an interview, Rep. Suzan DelBene, who chairs the House Democrats’ campaign arm, declined to say whether she would use the term “convicted felon” to describe Trump in her committee’s massive paid advertising campaign over the coming months. Nor would she say whether Democrats were more likely to win the House majority as a result of Trump’s conviction.

But DelBene said she would ensure that vulnerable House Republicans in elections across America would need to answer for their “blind loyalty” to Trump, especially after the recent conviction. Republicans across Capitol Hill have overwhelmingly condemned the jury’s unanimous verdict last week that Trump broke the law by hiding hush money payments to an adult film actress in a way that was designed to benefit his first president campaign.

“We’re going to hold Republicans accountable for this,” DelBene said. “They don’t respect the rule of law.”

The issue is already proving to be a key dividing line on the ground in Pennsylvania’s 1st Congressional District in suburban Bucks County, which one of the most important swing regions in U.S. politics. As Bucks goes this fall, so may go control of Congress and the White House.

Democratic House nominee Ashley Ehasz, a 35-year-old former Army helicopter pilot, seized on Trump’s conviction in an interview and called out the silence of her opponent, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, who has represented the suburban Philadelphia district since 2019.

While many Republicans in Congress rushed to defend Trump following his guilty verdict, Fitzpatrick has avoided the issue altogether. His office ignored multiple requests for comment this week.

“We now have a convicted felon, who is leader of the Republican Party, and Brian Fitzpatrick does not have the courage to say, ‘He is not worth my endorsement,’” Ehasz told The Associated Press. “There are no more moderate members of the GOP in the House.”

While Fitzpatrick stayed silent, Republican Rep. Mike Kelly, who represents a Republican-leaning district in the northwestern part of the state, said his constituents are disappointed with the verdict. He’s concerned they’re becoming so frustrated with politics that they won’t vote this fall.

“What I’m worried about are people starting to say I’m not going to participate anymore,” Kelly said in an interview. “I say, That’s the worst thing you can do. Do not stop.”

An ABC News/Ipsos poll conducted in the wake of the verdict found that perceptions of Trump and Biden didn’t meaningfully shift from before the verdict was announced.

The poll also found that about half of Americans think Trump should end his presidential campaign because of the conviction. That finding is also essentially unchanged since before the verdict and driven strongly by partisanship, with three-quarters of Republicans in the most recent poll saying Trump should not end his campaign.

In Pennsylvania, former U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, who lost a 2022 bid for the Senate in the Democratic primary to now-Sen. John Fetterman, suggested that voters simply care about other issues.

“If there’s a danger, it’s taking your eye off the ball, right? I mean, the conviction is a big, shiny thing that the media paid a lot of attention to,” he said. “That’s not what the voters care about, and that just kind of indirectly tells them you may not share their priorities.”

That said, Lamb added, “I have a lot of trust in the judgment of the president and his team.”

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Associated Press writers Lisa Mascaro, Amelia Thomson DeVeaux and Seung Min Kim in Washington contributed to this report.

Steve Peoples, The Associated Press


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