Trump-RFK Jr. feud heats up as polls tighten

A fiery battle between former President Trump and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is heating up as polls begin to show that the third-party candidate represents just as much of a threat to the former president as he does to President Biden.

“RFK Jr. is a Democrat ‘Plant,’ a Radical Left Liberal who’s been put in place in order to help Crooked Joe Biden, the Worst President in the History of the United States, get Re-Elected,” Trump wrote on Truth Social last week.

“A Vote for Junior’ would essentially be a WASTED PROTEST VOTE, that could swing either way, but would only swing against the Democrats if Republicans knew the true story about him,” Trump added.

“When frightened men take to social media they risk descending into vitriol, which makes them sound unhinged,” Kennedy fired back at Trump on Saturday in a post on the social platform X. “President Trump’s rant against me is a barely coherent barrage of wild and inaccurate claims that should best be resolved in the American tradition of presidential debate.”

The conventional wisdom for months has been that while Kennedy’s third-party bid could be a spoiler for both Trump and Biden, it bore more risks to the Democrat given Kennedy’s family name.

But Decision Desk HQ’s aggregate of polling over the last few weeks paints a much more complicated picture. While Trump at times sees his lead over Biden grow with Kennedy is also included in polls, the gap was narrowing last week, and at one point Biden and Trump were in a dead heat in a three-way race with Kennedy.

Some Trump allies who know the former president’s operating style downplayed last week’s attacks, saying they were off-the-cuff and not part of a coordinated strategy against Kennedy.

“He’s pretty much predictable and tribal in his response to anybody and everybody,” a former Trump campaign adviser in a battleground state told The Hill. “I don’t know that we can put a measure on that.”

Still, other Republicans say it’s clear that concerns are growing in Trumpland about Kennedy.

“You don’t attack somebody you’re not at all worried about,” GOP strategist Alex Conant said.

“If you look at the sort of media RFK does, you look at his very populist message, his history of embracing conspiracy theories — there’s a lot there to make Trump World nervous.”

Democrats and Republicans are both “in a race to define Kennedy,” because in a tight race, his supporters could be crucial, Conant said.

GOP strategist Brian Seitchik, a former Trump campaign staffer, said “the real barometer” will be whether Trump escalates his criticisms.

“More than just tweets and Truth Socials and things like that, is there going to be a concerted effort to spend against him in key states and try to push the share of the vote down?” Seitchik said.

Democrats have been the party more preoccupied by Kennedy, with the environmental lawyer’s own family sounding alarms that he could siphon votes from Biden. More than a dozen members of the Kennedy clan earlier this month backed the president in a high-profile rebuke of their relative.

But a new NBC News poll showed Kennedy could actually dent Trump more than Biden.

While the Republican was 2 points up in a head-to-head match-up, Biden jumped to a 2-point advantage with third-party candidates in the mix.

Jim Messina, who led former President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, said in a recent MSNBC interview that the latest polling around Kennedy is a promising sign for Democrats.

“They say he hurts Biden. I think I’m not sure that that’s true. I think he probably hurts [us] both,” Trump said in a radio appearance with conservative John Fredericks last week. “But he might hurt Biden a little bit more, you don’t know.”

Republicans, including Trump himself, have at times offered positive views of Kennedy.

Not anymore. Earlier this month, the pro-Trump PAC Make America Great Again Inc. launched a website mocking “Radical F***ing Kennedy” and pitching the independent as a “friend of left-wing extremists.”

Reached by The Hill for comment Monday, Kennedy campaign spokesperson Stefanie Spear pointed to the candidate’s remarks about Trump on X.

Republicans are generally cautious about speculating how Kennedy’s bid could play out.

“Depending on what poll you look at, Kennedy poses problems for either one of them,” Republican strategist Doug Heye said of Biden and Trump.

“This is one of the reasons that trying to really try to accurately forecast 2024 is going to be very difficult, because it is going to come down to a handful of states, and that means a handful of voters. And what RFK means to either candidate in any of those states, I just don’t think we know yet,” Heye said.

Democrats are worried about how Kennedy could hurt Biden in various swing states.

Party officials and organizers have been working alongside political operatives to get the word out about what they see as his candidacy’s problems, including how he could help Trump win back the White House.

Democrats have referenced the 2016 presidential race, when Green Party candidate Jill Stein won enough voters in swing states that arguably helped Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton.

“When it comes to Mr. Kennedy in particular, you think about the positions he’s taken and the things he’d advocated for and quite frankly the things he’s advocated against, it should scare the hell out of every person who is thinking about participating in this election,” said Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist based in South Carolina.

Democrats have been critical about his views questioning vaccine science and have increasingly drawn attention toward his wavering sentiments around abortion and in vitro fertilization, in which he has offered mixed stances. He has also issued what many Democrats considered a lukewarm rebuke of the rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Some in the party have also sought to showcase that he is aligned with Trump’s donors after it became known that GOP financier Timothy Mellon has supported his super PAC.

“The policy threat that comes along with putting that into the bloodstream can be detrimental,” Seawright said. “Particularly in a day and age where misinformation, disinformation and lies seem to attract more attention than pure facts.”

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