By Michael Gold and Kellen Browning
Former President Donald Trump, who has been itching for months to focus on a likely matchup between him and President Joe Biden in November, previewed Saturday a likely general-election message, extensively attacking Biden at an event in Nevada, a critical battleground state.
Further proof of Nevada’s importance could be seen a mile away, where Vice President Kamala Harris cast the fight against Trump, should he wrap up the nomination, as a battle for democracy.
Though Trump was ostensibly visiting Las Vegas to encourage his supporters to turn out for the Nevada caucuses on Feb. 8, he devoted much of his speech to Biden’s handling of the surge of crossings at the southern border, which he called “a weapon of mass destruction” internally destroying the United States.
And Trump, who currently faces four criminal cases that he casts — without evidence — as attempts by Biden to wrest the election from him, wielded the language of the justice system to suit his purposes.
“What Joe Biden doing is a crime against our nation,” Trump said. He later added: “With your vote, he will be judged and convicted by the American people for this atrocity that he’s done.”
Saturday’s speech was in many ways a return to form after a month in which Trump had escalated his attacks against his rivals in the Republican presidential primary as he scored decisive wins in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Trump now seems to be marching toward the general election, but he is not yet the party’s nominee, and his lone remaining rival for the nomination, Nikki Haley, is doing everything she can to remind him that she remains in the race.
Trump’s supporters Saturday said they had largely moved past the Republican contest, though Haley is still running. “It’s like the Kenny Rogers song — you need to know when to fold ’em,” Joe Sandoval, 74, said. “I don’t think she’s even a concern for him at this point.”
Trump and his team are preparing to fight Haley in her home state of South Carolina, the site of their next electoral battle, on Feb. 24. The former president took glancing swipes at her Saturday, mostly accusing her of betraying Republican ideals and her conservative roots.
“Nikki Haley made a corrupt deal to sell out to the radical left, taking the Democrat money from donors,” Trump said.
But Trump’s victory in Nevada’s caucuses is a foregone conclusion. Haley is on the ballot for a presidential primary on Feb. 6 that will not count toward the GOP nomination, so she is skipping the state entirely. The caucuses — which will determine who gets the state’s delegate prize — feature Trump without a single major competitor.
“Nevada will certainly be a good messaging opportunity for Trump, because he’s going to win all the delegates here, and he will win unopposed,” said Jeremy Gelman, an associate professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Reno. “He will be able to say he swept Nevada.”
Still, those attending Trump’s speech in Las Vegas, held at Big League Dreams, a sports park, admitted to some confusion over the dueling contests, an issue Trump addressed.
“Don’t worry about the primary, just do the caucus,” Trump told his supporters.
Later, he delivered a more mixed message. “Don’t waste your time on primary,” he said. “Waste all of your time on caucus.”
His phrasing, inadvertent or not, reflects the view of the primary that Trump, long the front-runner, has had for months: that it is a distraction delaying him from taking on Biden.
On Saturday, Trump attacked a Biden-backed bipartisan immigration deal, saying it was “not designed to stop illegal immigration.” Trump has been pressing Republican senators to oppose a deal, and he told them in his speech to “blame me” if it failed.
He also signaled his intent to court Hispanic voters, a key constituency in Nevada, and an important part of the Democratic coalition. Polls have shown Trump gaining their support.
Trump charged that Biden had “devastated the Latino community” economically, and said Hispanics had been “better off” financially under his administration.
He also suggested that Black and Latino voters were the “single most affected people by what’s happening at our border,” but provided no specifics.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Biden’s reelection campaign, Ammar Moussa, said, “Donald Trump demonstrated tonight he’s campaigning against solutions for the American people, and is actively rooting against America,” adding that Biden was “the only candidate focused on governing and addressing the issues the American people demand action on.”
Both parties are looking to November: Outside Trump’s event, the Democratic National Committee flew a plane overhead with a banner reading “Donald Trump: Ban Abortion, Punish Women.” The party is expected to make abortion a central issue in November.
A mile away, Harris’ event felt like an alternative universe, with some voters wearing masks and voicing support for gun control while an Olivia Rodrigo song played and a local dance team performed.
Harris riled up the crowd with a list of the administration’s accomplishments and suggested that they contrasted with Trump’s priorities.
“In his comments today, as always, he made clear his fight is not for the people. His fight is for himself,” she said, as hundreds booed.
“Freedom is on the ballot, and our democracy is on the ballot,” Harris said. “This is about standing for the kind of country we want to live in.”