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'Up there with World War II and the Civil War': Three-headed crisis reshapes Biden-Trump race

Alex Roarty, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- The death of George Floyd and subsequent vitriolic nationwide demonstrations against police violence have added yet another crisis to a presidential campaign already gripped by a public health emergency and economic calamity, thrusting the race into unprecedented terrain as Donald Trump and Joe Biden seek to show they can lead the country during a perilous moment in its history.

Even against the standard of recent presidential elections, some of which have been run against the backdrop of terrorist attacks and financial catastrophe, the 2020 race is beset with historic challenges few White House candidates have been forced to deal with, say veterans of past presidential campaigns.

"This is up there with World War II and the Civil War in terms of the extent of the crisis and how deeply it is affecting the nation and the world," said Tad Devine, a senior adviser to Democrat John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign, a race run in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"All of this history usually seems so big that it can only be part of the past," added Devine, who also worked on Bernie Sanders' 2016 bid. "But we find ourselves in the midst of it now."

Which candidate the influx of crises helps or hurts remains unclear five months out from Election Day: Even at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, Trump's approval numbers barely budged. National polls released in recent weeks have shown Biden leading the president by a firm but relatively narrow margin, even if his advantage remains murkier in key swing states such as Wisconsin, Florida and Arizona.

But problems consuming the country could transform both candidates in voters' eyes, seasoned strategists said, in ways that are still difficult to predict.

 

"What was alarmist and bellicose war-mongering about Winston Churchill became desperately needed," said Stuart Stevens, the former chief strategist for 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney's presidential campaign who is now advising a group working against Trump. "What was radical about (Margaret) Thatcher, the idea that we'd privatize these government-held industries, became a positive for her."

The 2020 election appeared headed for different circumstances when the year began, a time when the economy was growing and the coronavirus still hadn't reached the country. At that point, the election was shaping up as a referendum on Trump's conduct in office, especially after his impeachment in December by the House of Representatives on allegations he tried to extort the leader of a foreign country into supplying damaging information about Biden.

The election might still largely hinge on the public's views about Trump, but those perceptions now will be filtered through his response to the pandemic and the resulting economic catastrophe that has some analysts worried about a depression not seen since the 1930s.

And now they'll also be viewed through his attempts to respond to the protests over Floyd's death and the looting that occurred in many cities. On Monday, Trump sought primarily to speak out against the protest-related violence he says he saw across the country, saying he was considering using the military to quell the problems and declaring himself a "law and order president."

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