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Tired of the Republican primary, GOP frontrunner Donald Trump shifts focus to Biden

In this file image, then-President Donald Trump and then-former Vice President and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden speak during the first presidential debate on September 29, 2020 in Cleveland, Ohio.
Morry Gash
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Getty Images
In this file image, then-President Donald Trump and then-former Vice President and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden speak during the first presidential debate on September 29, 2020 in Cleveland, Ohio.

Former President Donald Trump is zeroing in his attacks on President Biden.

It's another sign his campaign is looking past the Republican primaries — and focusing more on the general election ahead.

At a recent rally in South Dakota, Trump referenced Biden almost 60 times. In contrast, he mentioned Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, his closest rival in the Republican primary, just twice.

Calling him "Crooked Joe," Trump called Biden a Manchurian candidate and claimed he is the head of a crime family who is looting the middle class.

"They're just destroying our country," Trump said. "And if we don't take it back — if we don't take it back in '24, I really believe we're not going to have a country left."

When he did mention his Republican rivals in the presidential primary, Trump cited how far he was ahead in political polls. He called DeSantis an "unskilled politician" who "sided with the communists in China." But that was about all he said about the GOP primary.

"Donald Trump is up over his Republican opponents by anywhere from 40 to 50 points. He doesn't need to talk about any of them," explained Hogan Gidley, a former White House spokesman who still speaks regularly with Trump.

Gidley said the focus is and should be on Biden. "That's the person Republicans want to unseat," he said. "That's the person Donald Trump should continue to attack."

Former President Donald Trump skipped the first Republican presidential debate hosted by FOX News on August 23 in Milwaukee.
Win McNamee / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Former President Donald Trump skipped the first Republican presidential debate hosted by Fox News on Aug. 23 in Milwaukee.

Eyes on the prize

The speech is just one of several ways Trump is looking ahead to the general election.

For example, Trump's also shifted the focus of his ads. After spending millions in ads against DeSantis this spring, Trump's campaign and his super PAC have all but stopped spending on DeSantis attack ads.

Meanwhile, in the last several weeks, they've spent more than $1 million in ads against Biden that started running in August, according to AdImpact, a firm that tracks ad spending.

It signals a shift away from the closest competitor in the primary to what Trump seems to see as his closest competition overall as he gears up for what would be a rematch of the 2020 election.

Adding to that, once again Trump will skip next week's Republican debate in California. Instead, he plans to speak tostriking union autoworkers in Detroit as they call for better contract terms from top automakers, according to a source familiar with the plans.

Trump and his campaign have repeatedly said he does not need to appear alongside the other candidates. Ahead of the first debate, which he did not participate in, Trump said he did not want to give attention to other campaigns by standing center stage.

"Some of them are at one and zero and two," Trump told former Fox News host Tucker Carlson in an interview on X, referring to polling numbers. "And I'm saying, 'Do I sit there for an hour or two hours?' Whatever it's going to be, and get harassed by people that shouldn't even be running for president? Should I be doing that?"

Potential 2020 rematch in 2024

As for the increasingly vicious attacks against Biden, Republican strategist Alex Conant says they are a way for Trump to attract headlines.

It's also a way to workshop material to see what resonates with voters, he explained.

"Donald Trump lost in 2020 in part because he never found a good attack line against Joe Biden," said Conant, who helped lead Sen. Marco Rubio's presidential campaign in 2016. "I think he's going to road test everything under the sun in hopes of finding a punch that can land before the general election next year."

Trump has been indicted in four different criminal cases.

But he got some help from surrogates in the House of Representatives in the wake of his most recent indictment in Georgia as those lawmakers shifted attention by launching an impeachment inquiry into Biden over his son's business dealings.

The White House says Republicans have no evidence to back up their claims and insist Biden did nothing wrong.

Democratic strategist Doug Sosnik says the legitimacy of the accusations is not all that matters.

"I don't care what anybody tells you, any time you're in a White House, in that's a potentially dangerous environment for the incumbent president to be in," said Sosnik, who was an adviser to former President Bill Clinton when he was impeached in 1998.

Sosnik thinks Biden, like Clinton, will come out ahead politically in the long run, but says impeachment gives Trump an effective counter punch to excite his base ahead of his looming criminal trials.

"While this is successful in the short term," Sosnik said, "it's what's going to cost him dearly in the end. In the long term, that's the Faustian bargain that he's decided to make."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.