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Biden hits battleground states as Trump opts for a seat in court

The freshly anointed presidential campaign rematch cracked open a new chapter Thursday, with President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris visiting the Midwest – one with a problem to fix, the other a base to galvanize – and former President Donald Trump opting for a seat in a Florida courtroom.

Biden, who, like Trump, clinched his party’s presidential nomination earlier this week, began the day in Wisconsin before heading to Michigan, perhaps the most volatile of battleground states, where his primary victory some two weeks ago was undermined in part by an estimable number of dissenting Democratic votes – for “uncommitted” – in protest of his handling of Israel’s war in Gaza. Harris was nearby in Minnesota, making what is believed to be the first visit of a sitting president or vice president to a clinic that provides abortion services.

Trump, also out to stoke his base, sat – of his own volition – in a Florida courtroom with a pair of co-defendants as their lawyers try to convince a judge to dismiss charges brought by special counsel Jack Smith in the former president’s classified documents case.

Though Judge Aileen Cannon sounded skeptical of the Trump team’s arguments, suggesting it would fit better in a trial setting, the former president was quick to thank the supporters who had gathered outside the courthouse.

“Big crowds in Fort Pierce, Florida, for the Biden induced Witch Hunt against his political opponent, ME!,” Trump said on his Truth Social platform. “Thank you, a great honor to have you there.”

The opening rounds of this new phase of a long presidential contest has provided a telling contrast between Biden, who is diving into traditional campaign work, and Trump, who has baselessly fashioned himself as the target of a politically driven conspiracy to undermine his candidacy. It is a clash not only of wildly opposing worldviews and policy priorities, in the conventional sense, but of competing strategies for gaining – and holding – political power in a deeply divided country.

Biden’s and Harris’s trips were backed up by a meeting between senior White House officials and Arab, Muslim and Palestinian American community leaders in Chicago.

The president has been barnstorming key swing states since delivering a combative State of the Union address a week ago. He’s already been to Pennsylvania, Georgia and New Hampshire in the space of a few days, with a wider itinerary to come.

Michigan has emerged as ground zero for Biden’s efforts to rebuild and revamp the coalition that delivered one of his defining victories of the 2020 election. Saginaw County, which he is visiting Thursday, is one of 25 counties nationwide to back the winner of the last four presidential elections.

If Biden is planning to announce or even hint at a political or policy shift over the conflict in Gaza, then he will do so with the apparent backing of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the country’s highest-ranking and most influential Jewish lawmaker. On Thursday, the New York Democrat described Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as an obstacle to peace in the region and called for a new election in Israel “at a time,” he said, “when so many Israelis have lost their confidence in the vision and direction of their government.”

Though Biden has not gone nearly as far, his initial, unquestioning support of Israel’s now monthslong reprisal for the October 7 terror attacks by Hamas has softened – at least rhetorically – over the past few weeks. In a Sunday interview with MSNBC, the president declared that an Israeli incursion into Rafah, the last refuge for Gazans driven south by the fighting, would represent a red line for his administration.

Should Israel move ahead anyway, as they are expected to do, Biden could face an escalating political crisis. For all his reported work to lobby Netanyahu behind closed doors, he does not appear to have slowed Israel’s assault on Gaza – and his desire to change the dynamics, perhaps by halting weapons sales to Israel, will again come under furious scrutiny by peace activists.

If the conflict in the Middle East represents a barrier for Biden in his efforts to maintain the anti-Trump coalition critical to his reelection hopes, the fight to save abortion rights is, in practical political terms, one of his most potent assets. More than 10% of voters told a KFF tracking poll released a week ago that abortion is the most important issue when considering their 2024 vote.

Harris’s visit to a Planned Parenthood clinic in Minnesota’s Twin Cities area marked the campaign’s most conspicuous showing yet in support of abortion rights. It came as part of the vice president’s “Fight for Reproductive Freedom” tour, which included a Wednesday stop in Colorado, and included a meeting with clinic staff and a tour of the facility.

“How dare these elected leaders believe they are in a better position to tell women what they need, to tell women what is in their best interest,” Harris told reporters from the lobby of the clinic.

The vice president, the first woman in her position, spoke frankly about the medical care provided at clinics like the one she visited.

“So everyone get ready for the language: uterus,” Harris said. “That part of the body needs a lot of medical care from time to time. Issues like fibroids. We can handle this. Breast cancer screenings, contraceptive care.”

Earlier Thursday, Biden campaign manager Julie Chavez Rodriguez set the tone with a scathing condemnation of GOP state lawmakers in Arizona who blocked a vote on a bill to guarantee access to contraception.

“Trump ripped away the right to choose by overturning Roe v. Wade,” she said in a statement. “These attacks on women’s freedoms are a direct result of Trump, who Americans rejected in 2020, and it’s why they’ll reject him again.”

The former president, though not slated to speak during his Thursday court appearance, has been doing some clean-up work around another hot-button issue. After suggesting Monday that he would be open to cuts to Medicare and Social Security – a flip flop from his position during the GOP primary, when he slammed rivals for suggesting the same – Trump in an interview with Breitbart published Thursday attempted to quell the fire.

“I will never do anything that will jeopardize or hurt Social Security or Medicare,” Trump told the right-wing news outlet during a sitdown at Mar-a-Lago. “We’ll have to do it elsewhere. But we’re not going to do anything to hurt them.”

That pledge represented a stark about-face from earlier in the week, when Trump told CNBC, “There is a lot you can do in terms of entitlements, in terms of cutting and in terms of also the theft and the bad management of entitlements.”

Shortly after the remark went out, the Biden campaign pounced.

“Not on my watch,” the president said, as allies reminded voters that Trump, while still president, made budget proposals that included spending cuts to Social Security, primarily by targeting disability benefits, and Medicare, largely by reducing provider payments.

This story has been updated with additional information.

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