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Washington (CNN)There have been many weeks when the Trump train has looked like it’s going to jump the tracks. But in the seven days since the Republican convention, the President has come perhaps as close as he ever has to a full derailment.
The outrages, conspiracy theories and drama have come so fast that it’s almost impossible to believe Donald Trump can keep this up for another eight weeks until Election Day. But as Democratic nominee Joe Biden begins to travel and to offer an alternative vision of sober presidential-style leadership, events of the last few days have clarified the personality clash and issues that will decide the race.On Thursday, even the President and the White House seemed to think he might have gone too far with his suggestion that North Carolinians try to vote twice to test election security, a potential crime and the latest attempt by the President to cast as illegitimate an election that polls suggest he may lose. At a rally on Thursday in Pennsylvania, Trump again said mail-in ballots are a “disgrace,” charging that dogs have received them in the mail. He advised his supporters to “follow” their ballots and go vote if they’re not tabulated.
In just the latest sign that astounding developments are the norm in Trump’s presidency, he pulled aside the White House press pool after returning to Andrews Air Force base from his rally on Thursday night to deny that he had mocked the sacrifice of America’s war dead and had yet again insulted the late Sen. John McCain following an article published in The Atlantic magazine Thursday about him disparaging the military. CNN has not independently verified The Atlantic’s reporting. Biden issued a statement saying that if the allegations were true, they would be “yet another marker of how deeply President Trump and I disagree about the role of the President of the United States.”Read MoreTrump will ignite a new uproar soon enough. It’s clearer than ever that his platform for this election is his own wild behavior that animates his hyperbolic claim that a Democratic presidency would see the suburbs torched by rioters — not the statesmanlike script choreographed at the RNC.No President in modern history has gone into a reelection race warning that the process of choosing a government that is the bedrock of American democracy is illegitimate. Trump’s conduct risks a full-on post-election constitutional crisis.As well as the North Carolina furor, Trump this week claimed that plane-loads of dark-clad rioters were crisscrossing the country. He appeared to justify the actions of a teenage vigilante who killed two protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He denied he had a series of “mini strokes,” sparking speculation about his health. It emerged that the President and Russia, yet again, are on the same page, as an intelligence briefing revealed that Moscow is also spreading misinformation about mail-in voting to harm the integrity of the election. Trump also visited Kenosha, the latest US city consumed by racial tensions and protests that turned violent following the shooting of a Black man by police. Trump didn’t bring reconciliation, however, and appeared to shut down Black pastors about to talk about racial injustice. He compared the brutality of police officers who shoot armed Black men to golfers with the yips who choke over a “three foot putt.” And as always, the President has been ignoring the worst domestic crisis since World War II, a pandemic that has killed 185,000 Americans and counting. On Thursday, hours after final death figures for the day before showed another 1,000 lost Americans, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany played a video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi without a mask on a loop at the start of her briefing. The speaker’s slip exposed her to deserved accusations of hypocrisy and was a bad gaffe. Yet it was hardly the biggest crisis facing the nation that needs to be addressed by a White House that has repeatedly demonstrated a profound lack of seriousness during the pandemic.Still, while Trump’s constantly disruptive behavior and refusal to play the role of a traditional president horrifies Beltway elites, it’s exactly what makes him attractive to supporters who long ago soured on conventional politicians. The more he trolls the media, the more his base and his conservative media cheerleaders love it. The question is whether a President who looked every day for four years like he’s waging an endless GOP primary campaign can secure a path to victory without broadening his base.
Biden behaves like a shadow president
While the storm was raging at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Biden has been doing his best to offer Americans a more traditional brand of presidential leadership. He delivered a speech in Pittsburgh on Monday condemning violence in all its forms. “Rioting is not protesting, looting is not protesting,” Biden declared, while making a strident call for racial justice. He also offered condolences for the death of one of the President’s supporters in unrest in Portland, Oregon. He held a presidential-style forum on the “national emergency” in schools and colleges as a new academic year starts, stunted by Covid-19. Biden followed Trump to Kenosha on Thursday, but actually spoke to Jacob Blake, the man gravely injured by police. He counseled the family and spoke about the need for reconciliation and police and social reform — shouldering the anger and fear in the country as a normal president might be expected to do.Biden spent the week trying to dispel the caricature of a “Trojan horse” for looters, rioters, anarchists and maniacs, with which he was labeled at the RNC and which Trump has pushed ever since.View Trump and Biden head-to-head polling“Do I look like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters?” Biden asked in Pittsburgh, using one of his potential weaknesses — an almost 50-year career in politics, during which many Americans have followed his tragedies and rebounds — as a shield.Biden’s performance may have eased the nerves of some Democrats who appeared spooked by the discipline of the Republican convention last week. Good polling helps too. Multiple national surveys show that Trump didn’t get the convention bounce he needed given the fact he’s still trailing. The race appears closer in swing states but Biden is well positioned everywhere, leaving the President with a growing problem given the fact that many states start sending out absentee ballots in the coming days and weeks. The Trump campaign insists the polls are all wrong, and is boasting of a previously undetected legion of new Trump voters who were not active in 2016.The contrasting styles of Biden and Trump this week point to the choice that will be on display at a now crucial first presidential debate in just over three weeks — and that will ultimately be decided on November 3 — or whenever the expected deluge of mail-in votes is counted.
Does a sufficient slice of the country still want a careening, politically incorrect President who appears ready to tear the country down around him? Will the cultural connection that Trump has forged with his fervent base voters — especially on racial issues — supersede unease about his mishandling of a pandemic that has shut down normal life?Or with no end in sight to the crisis, are there 270 electoral votes to elevate an elderly, temperate and traditional president in Biden, who, instead of constant uproar, is offering to serve as a counselor in troubled times?