WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Some of U.S. President Donald Trump’s allies worry his racially charged fights with opponents are hurting his re-election chances even as Democratic rivals make things easier for him by bickering over their own key policies.
Trump faces no serious challenge from within his Republican Party, the economy is growing, and two televised debates this week highlighted the divisions within the Democratic Party over healthcare, immigration and criminal justice reform.
That combination of factors could allow Trump to poke fun at the crowded field of Democratic candidates while pushing his record on the economy and his case for re-election.
Instead, he is generating trouble for himself by clashing with Democrats of color, most recently this week with Elijah Cummings, an African-American lawmaker who leads a congressional committee that is investigating Trump and his administration.
Some Republicans believe Trump would be in a much stronger position if he stayed away from conflict and adopted a more positive message.
The RealClearPolitics.com average of recent opinion polls give Trump a job approval rating of 44 percent, an underwhelming score for a president during a time of strong growth and low unemployment.
“If he would talk about the economy for three days in a row, his numbers would go up to 50 percent,” said one Republican close to the White House.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Trump confidant, suggested the president should tamp down his style and let Democrats fight among themselves, writing in a tweet this week that he should “get out of these people’s way!”
“You are winning the battle of ideas. Sit back and enjoy the show!” Graham said.
Trump has in the last three weeks unleashed a series of attacks against four Democratic women of color in the House of Representatives, and then against Cummings.
He has called Cummings a “Brutal bully” and said no human would want to live in the lawmaker’s “disgusting, rat and rodent-infested” district, which includes a chunk of the city of Baltimore.
The comments triggered a storm of protests, with Democrats accusing Trump of racism.
Some analysts believe Trump is keen to inject the sensitive issue of race into the 2020 campaign, believing it will fire up his base of supporters and help him win a tight race.
Trump says he was simply speaking his mind and not pushing a divisive electoral strategy.
“There’s no strategy. I have no strategy. There’s zero strategy,” Trump said on Tuesday. “All it is, is I’m pointing out facts.”
Still, some Republicans believe Democrats will ultimately rally behind their eventual candidate ahead of the election in November 2020, and that Trump is not doing enough to make himself more appealing to a broader group of voters.
“He has to recognize he can’t win this on the basis of base alone, and he’s got to do something to make people feel more comfortable in voting for him,” said a Republican close to Trump’s 2020 campaign. “If he goes into the election with 54 percent of voters saying they won’t vote for him, he’s in trouble.”
Campaign officials, on the other hand, say Trump is expanding his total voter base through an intense data collection effort from people who sign up to attend his rallies.
They also believe the Democrats’ leftward tilt will help Trump.
“There is no moderate lane in the Democrat primary,” said campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh.
Trump’s election in 2016 was largely due to narrow wins in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, three states where Democrats are working to boost voter turnout in the next election.
Trump told reporters this week he believes former Vice President Joe Biden will win the Democratic nomination.
Polls show Biden leading the Democratic field and holding an advantage in a matchup with Trump, helped by his blue-collar appeal in several battleground states.
But Biden faces concerns about his age – 76 – with many Democratic voters looking for younger blood.
“I think right now — I am watching — I think right now it will be ‘Sleepy Joe,’” Trump said on Tuesday, using his nickname for Biden. “I feel he’ll limp across the line. That’s what I think.”