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‘Constitutional Crisis’ or Confrontation? Democrats and Republicans Disagree

Democratic lawmakers say the Trump administration’s refusal to provide additional information and testimony relating to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report has plunged the U.S. into a constitutional crisis. The fight over just how much oversight the U.S. Congress should have over the White House has triggered a debate about the balance of power in the U.S. government. VOA’s congressional correspondent Katherine Gypson reports from Capitol Hill.

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Government Audit: Carson’s $40K Office Purchases Broke Law

Government auditors say Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson violated the law when his department spent more than $40,000 to purchase a dining set and a dishwasher for his office’s executive dining room

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson violated the law when his department spent more than $40,000 to purchase a dining set and a dishwasher for his office’s executive dining room, government auditors concluded.

In a report released Thursday, the Government Accountability Office said HUD failed to notify Congress before exceeding a $5,000 limit set by Congress to furnish or make improvements to the office of a presidential appointee. The dining set cost more than $31,000 and the dishwasher cost nearly $9,000.

Carson told lawmakers last year that he was unaware of the purchase and canceled it as soon as he learned about it in news reports. He also told a House Appropriations subcommittee that he left furniture purchasing decisions to his wife. But emails released by watchdog group American Oversight suggested that Carson and his wife, Candy Carson, both played a role in choosing the furniture.

The GAO said HUD did not break the law when it paid more than $4,000 for new blinds for Carson’s office suite.

Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees HUD, said that while the amount of money may be small, it’s a “willful disregard for the appropriate use” of taxpayer dollars.

“There needs to be more accountability at HUD and stronger oversight of the Trump Administration or else this pattern of unlawful behavior will continue, and I worry it won’t just be a small amount of money the next time,” Reed said in a statement.

HUD Chief Financial Officer Irv Dennis said the department has been working to improve its financial controls.

“Our job is to make sure systems are in place to protect every taxpayer dollar we spend and to restore sound financial management and stability to the way we do business,” Dennis said in a statement.

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House Approves Bill to Expand Gay Rights

Democrats in the House approved sweeping anti-discrimination legislation Friday that would extend civil rights protections to LGBT people by prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The protections would extend to employment, housing, loan applications, education, public accommodations and other areas. 

 

Called the Equality Act, the bill is a top priority of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who said it would bring the nation “closer to equal liberty and justice for all.” 

 

Sexual orientation and gender identity “deserve full civil rights protections — in the workplace and in every place, education, housing, credit, jury service, public accommodations,” Pelosi said.  

The vote was 236-173, with every Democrat voting in favor, along with eight Republicans. Cheers and applause broke out on the House floor as the bill crossed the threshold for passage.  

  

The legislation’s chief sponsor, Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., said it affirmed fairness and equality as core American values and ensured that  “members of the LGBTQ community can live their lives free from the fear of legal discrimination of any kind.” 

 

Cicilline, who is gay, called equal treatment under the law a founding principle of the United States, adding, “It’s absurd that, in 2019, members of the LGBTQ community can be fired from their jobs, denied service in a restaurant or get thrown out of their apartment because of their sexual orientation or gender identify.” 

GOP opposition

 

Most Republicans oppose the bill and call it another example of government overreach. Several GOP lawmakers spoke against it Friday on the House floor. President Donald Trump is widely expected to veto the legislation if it reaches his desk. 

 

At a news conference Thursday, the Republicans said the bill would jeopardize religious freedom by requiring acceptance of a particular ideology about sexuality and sexual identity.  

Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., called the legislation grossly misnamed'' and said it wasanything but equalizing.” 

 

The bill hijacks'' the 1964 Civil Rights Act to createa brave new world of ‘discrimination’ based on undefined terms of sexual orientation and gender identity,” Hartzler said. The legislation threatens women’s sports, shelters and schools, and could silence female athletes, domestic abuse survivors and other women, she said. 

 

A similar bill in the Senate has been co-sponsored by all but one Senate Democrat, but faces long odds in the Republican-controlled chamber. 

‘Poison pills’ 

A Trump administration official who asked not be identified, because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the president’s intentions, said the White House “opposes discrimination of any kind and supports the equal treatment of all. However, this bill in its current form is filled with poison pills that threaten to undermine parental and conscience rights.” 

 

Some critics also said the bill could jeopardize Title IX, the law prohibiting sex discrimination in federally funded education programs. Former tennis star Martina Navratilova co-wrote an opinion piece in The Washington Post urging lawmakers not to “make the unnecessary and ironic mistake of sacrificing the enormously valuable social good that is female sports in their effort to secure the rights of transgender women and girls.”  

Ahead of the vote, Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., called the House bill “horrifying” and said it could cause Catholic schools to lose federal grants for school lunches or require faith-based adoption agencies to place children with same-sex couples. 

 

Neena Chaudhry, a lawyer for the National Women’s Law Center, said the bill does not undermine Title IX, because courts have already found that Title IX protects against gender-identity discrimination. 

 

It is way past time to fully open the doors of opportunity for every American,'' said Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., one of the Senate bill's lead sponsors.Let’s pass the Equality Act, and let us rejoice in the bells of freedom ringing for every American.” 

 

In the Senate, Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine also supports the bill, while Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia is the sole Democrat who is not a co-sponsor. 

 

The eight House Republicans who voted for the bill Friday were Reps. Susan Brooks of Indiana, Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Will Hurd of Texas, Greg Walden of Oregon and New York lawmakers John Katko, Tom Reed and Elise Stefanik.

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Missouri Assembly Passes Restrictive Abortion Bill

The lower house of the Missouri General Assembly passed a bill on Friday to prohibit women from seeking an abortion after the eighth week of pregnancy, days after Alabama enacted the most restrictive abortion law in the United 

States. 

The House of Representatives gave its final legislative approval in a 110-44 vote after protesters were removed from the public gallery. Missouri senators overwhelmingly approved the legislation Thursday. 

Republican Gov. Mike Parson is expected to sign the bill into law. He has said he would make Missouri “one of the strongest pro-life states in the country.” 

The bill allows for an abortion after the eighth week only in the case of medical emergencies. On Wednesday, Alabama banned abortions at any time, with the same exception. 

Similar laws have been proposed in more than a dozen other states as Republican-controlled legislatures push to restrict the rights of women to terminate their pregnancies. 

Renewed efforts to roll back Roe v. Wade, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide in 1973, have been emboldened by two judicial appointments by President Donald Trump that have given conservatives a solid majority on the court. 

At a time when U.S. rates of abortion have sharply declined, the appointments have put fresh energy into the political struggle between religious conservatives and others who believe fetuses should have rights comparable to those of babies after birth, and those who see such restrictions as an infringement on women’s rights. The re-energized debate coincides with the run-up to the 2020 U.S. presidential 

election. 

Abortion-rights activists argue that rolling back 45 years of legal precedent to criminalize abortion would endanger women who seek dangerous illegal abortions. 

Health risk?

U.S. abortion-rights activists have vowed to go to court to block enforcement of the Alabama law, which is scheduled to take effect in six months. 

The Missouri bill passed the Senate on Thursday in a party-line vote, with 24 Republicans supporting it and 10 Democrats opposed. 

In common with the Alabama bill, it would outlaw abortion even in the case of rape or incest and make violations by doctors punishable by prison sentences. 

The measure would not make women who seek out the procedure subject to criminal prosecution, although opponents of the statute said it was ambiguous about the criminal liability of a woman accused of inducing her own miscarriage. 

The measure also would ban abortions altogether except for medical emergencies should the Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade. 

As of May, lawmakers have introduced legislation to restrict abortions in at least 16 states this year. Governors in four have signed bills into law banning the procedure if an embryonic heartbeat can be detected, generally considered to be as early as six weeks. 

Some Republicans pushing for abortion restrictions acknowledge they are deliberately doing so to instigate court challenges that will ultimately force the Supreme Court to reconsider Roe v. Wade. 

The ruling held that the due process clause of the 14th Amendment provides a fundamental right to privacy that protects a woman’s right to abortion. 

It also allowed states to place restrictions on the procedure from the time a fetus could viably survive outside the womb. The opinion stated that viability is usually placed at about seven months, or 28 weeks, but may occur earlier.

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Trump’s Washington Hotel Took In Nearly $41M in 2018 

One of the crown jewels of U.S. President Donald Trump’s real estate empire generated millions of dollars in revenue last year, reinforcing questions about the president’s businesses profiting from foreign and state government officials.

The luxury Trump International Hotel Washington, housed in the historic Old Post Office Pavilion building, brought in nearly $41 in million last year, a tad higher than the previous year, according to Trump’s latest financial disclosure form filed with the Office of Government Ethics and released Thursday.

The disclosure, required of all senior government officials, offers a snapshot of Trump’s debts, assets and income in broad ranges across hundreds of businesses he owns. In all, Trump reported income of at least $434 million for 2018, a decline from at least $450 million reported for 2017.

Not all Trump properties saw their revenue go up last year, however. Income at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s “Winter White House” in Palm Beach, Fla., fell $2.5 million to $22.7 million, according to the disclosure.

​Conflicts of interest

Since taking office, the real estate mogul-turned-president has faced persistent criticism over his refusal to divest his assets, a decision critics say has created conflicts between his business and political interests.

Opened in late 2016, Trump’s Washington hotel, just blocks from the White House, is one of the most high-profile in his portfolio of hospitality properties and frequently attracts diplomats, corporate executives and other deep-pocketed guests. It has become a lightning rod for those critics who have accused the president of illegally profiting from foreign diplomats and state government officials who frequent the property.

To ameliorate those concerns, Trump pledged before entering the White House to donate all foreign government profits at his hotels to the U.S. Treasury. In 2017, the Trump Organization voluntarily turned over more than $150,000 in profits from foreign governments to the Treasury, the company said last year. The company hasn’t said how much if any it donated last year.

Still, questions remain about whether Trump remains in violation of a clause of the U.S. Constitution that prohibits officials from accepting gifts or “emoluments” from foreign and state government officials without congressional approval.

In 2017, more than 200 Democratic members of Congress as well as the attorneys general of the District of Columbia and Maryland filed lawsuits against Trump, accusing him of violating the Constitution’s foreign and domestic emoluments clauses.

The president’s legal team has rejected the argument and sought to get the lawsuits dismissed.

Last month, a federal judge in the case brought by congressional members ruled they could move ahead with their lawsuit.

Just how much of the revenue at Trump’s Washington hotel comes from foreign and state government officials remains unclear. Several foreign embassies have reportedly hosted functions there at a cost of several hundred thousand dollars.

‘Potential violation’

Scott Amey, the general counsel for the Project on Government Oversight, a Washington-based ethics watchdog, said those suing Trump can cite the revenue at the Old Post Office to argue that “there is a potential violation here.”

Ultimately, though, the U.S. Supreme Court may have to intervene in the case and decide what an emolument is, Amey said.

“There are some legal arguments being made by Trump’s team that hotel revenues and income aren’t considered an emolument,” he said.

The controversy over emoluments is one of several questions surrounding Trump’s business interests.

​The New York Times reported earlier this month that Trump’s businesses lost more than $1 billion between 1985 and 1994, allowing him to avoid paying taxes for eight of those 10 years.

Trump called the report “a highly inaccurate Fake News hit job,” tweeting that real estate developers in the 1980s and 1990s were entitled to “massive write-offs and depreciation.”

Trump, breaking with a recent presidential tradition, refused to release his tax returns during the 2016 presidential campaign, saying he was under audit by the Internal Revenue Service.

Democrats in the House of Representatives have subpoenaed Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig to turn over Trump’s personal tax filings for the past six years to the House Ways and Means Committee by Friday. Mnuchin has signaled he won’t comply with the subpoena.

In his financial disclosure form last year, Trump disclosed that he had reimbursed his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, between $100,000 and $250,000 for unspecified “expenses” incurred in 2016, an apparent reference to the $130,000 in hush money Cohen paid to adult film star Stormy Daniels during the campaign.

Cohen told members of Congress in March that in the end he received $420,000 from Trump, more than triple the amount he had paid Daniels. Trump’s latest financial disclosure doesn’t account for the discrepancy.

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Schiff Plans ‘Enforcement Action’ Against DOJ Over Mueller Report

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff said Thursday that his panel would vote on “enforcement action” against Attorney General William Barr or the Justice Department next week, another escalation in the standoff between Congress and President Donald Trump’s administration over documents and testimony. 

 

Schiff is scheduling the vote after the Justice Department missed a Wednesday deadline to hand over an unredacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. The department also declined to hand over what Schiff described as “a dozen narrow sets of documents” that were referred to in the report. 

 

He said he requested those documents in order to gauge whether the department was acting in good faith. 

 

“The deadline came and went without the production of a single document, raising profound questions about whether the department has any intention to honor its legal obligations,” Schiff said. 

 

He would not say whether “enforcement action” meant a vote to hold Barr in contempt, as the House Judiciary Committee did last week, or some sort of civil action. Democrats have also been suggesting they might impose fines through what’s called inherent contempt of Congress. 

 

Schiff, D-Calif., said he encouraged the Justice Department to cooperate before the vote occurs. “If they don’t demonstrate some good faith we will be forced to compel them to honor their legal commitments,” he said.  

Earlier Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said “nothing is off the table” in pushing the White House to comply with subpoenas for information, including fines. 

 

Pelosi, D-Calif., said she hoped it wouldn’t come to that. But she called the White House counsel’s Wednesday letter to the Judiciary Committee resisting all requests for information “a joke” and “beneath the dignity of the president of the United States.” 

 

White House counsel Pat Cipollone sent a 12-page letter to the committee chairman, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., labeling congressional investigations as efforts to “harass” Trump in the wake of Mueller’s probe. The letter said that current and former administration officials would not be permitted to testify and that the administration would fight subpoenas as Democrats moved to investigate Trump’s presidency and finances. 

 

Cipollone also argued in the letter that Congress was a legislature, not a law enforcement body, and did not have a right to pursue most investigations. 

 

Nadler responded to Cipollone with his own letter Thursday evening, saying the White House’s refusal to comply was “astounding and dangerous.” 

 

He said a Justice Department opinion that says a president can’t be indicted holds the president above the law, so Congress “is therefore the only branch of government able to hold the president to account.”  

The Judiciary Committee “urgently requires the subpoenaed material to determine whether and how to proceed with its constitutional duty to provide checks and balances on the president and executive branch,” Nadler said, adding that the panel needed to better understand Russia’s efforts to try to influence the 2016 election. 

 

Pelosi also noted that one of the constitutional purposes of congressional investigations was impeachment. “It doesn’t mean you’re going on an impeachment path,” Pelosi said. “It means if you had the information, you might.” 

 

She said House Democrats aimed to “subpoena friendly,” then “subpoena otherwise.” 

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Flynn Told of Efforts to Interfere With His Cooperation

Former White House national security adviser Michael Flynn told the special counsel’s office that people connected to the Trump administration and Congress contacted him about his cooperation with the Russia investigation.

That’s according to a court filing from prosecutors Thursday that describes the extent of Flynn’s cooperation with the probe.

The document says Flynn and his attorneys received communications from unidentified people connected to the administration and Congress that “could have affected both his willingness to cooperate and the completeness of that cooperation.” Prosecutors say Flynn provided a voicemail recording of one such communication.

Flynn is awaiting sentencing after admitting to lying to the FBI about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States.

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Biden Surging as Democratic Front-Runner for 2020

Former vice president Joe Biden has surged into a big lead among the Democratic presidential contenders for 2020. The latest polls show Biden leading Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and a large, diverse field of Democratic White House hopefuls, in part because many Democrats see Biden as a strong challenger to President Donald Trump next year. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more on the state of the Democratic primary race from Washington.

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NYC Mayor de Blasio Seeking Democratic Nod for President

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Thursday that he will seek the Democratic nomination for president, adding his name to an already long list of candidates itching for a chance to take on Donald Trump.

 

The mayor announced his run with a video released by his campaign. 

 

“There’s plenty of money in this world. There’s plenty of money in this country. It’s just in the wrong hands,” de Blasio says at the beginning of the video. 

 

He concludes: “I’m running for president because it’s time we put working people first.” 

 

In announcing his candidacy, de Blasio seeks to claim a role on the national stage that has eluded him as mayor of the biggest U.S. city.

 

When he took office in 2014, de Blasio seemed briefly poised to become a leading voice for an emerging left wing of the Democratic Party.

 

But liberal enthusiasm faded over his first term, partly because of political missteps at home and the emergence of bigger names elsewhere. He could face obstacles trying to distinguish himself in a crowded field.

 

De Blasio, 58, has drawn small audiences so far in visits to early primary states including Iowa, South Carolina, Nevada and New Hampshire, where an audience of six showed up for a mental health discussion.

 

A recent Quinnipiac University poll found 76% of New York City voters say they believe he shouldn’t run.

 

Negative response

De Blasio’s hometown press has, so far, delighted in disparaging his presidential hopes.

 

“De Blasio for President? ‘Nah,”‘ read one recent New York Times headline summing up the city’s reaction to his possible candidacy.

“Who hasn’t told Bill de Blasio that he shouldn’t run for president?” asked New York Magazine.

 

De Blasio, though, has remained undaunted by the obstacles and said he believes he has a message that can resonate with the American public.

 

Political observers said that even if de Blasio’s candidacy doesn’t catch fire, he’ll be able to promote his policies and potentially angle for a job in a future Democratic administration. He is barred by term limits from running for mayor again.

 

“If he ran a strong and credible campaign, it could enhance his stature for gaining a major appointment or becoming a significant player, particularly if a Democrat is elected president,” said Michael Malbin, a professor of political science at the University at Albany. 

 

But Matthew Dallek, an associate professor of political management at George Washington University, said a losing White House campaign wouldn’t come without risks.

 

“If his legacy is that a crisis happened and he was off campaigning in Iowa, that’s significant,” Dallek said. “So yeah, there are risks.”

 

On the campaign trail, de Blasio will be able to cite accomplishments like expanding full-day prekindergarten and curtailing police tactics that critics said were discriminatory, while presiding over continued drops in violent crime.

 

His central message remains fighting income inequality.

 

Early days

De Blasio was born Warren Wilhelm Jr. in 1961 but took his mother’s family name in adulthood because, he said, his father was “largely absent from his life.” The mayor has spoken about how his father, Warren Wilhelm, a veteran who lost part of his left leg in World War II, descended into alcoholism and killed himself when de Blasio was 18.

 

Born in New York City, de Blasio grew up in the Boston area and has provoked New York sports fans by rooting ardently for the Boston Red Sox. He graduated from New York University and earned a master’s degree from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

 

De Blasio met his wife, Chirlane McCray, when they both worked for Democratic Mayor David Dinkins. They married in 1994 and have two children, Chiara and Dante.

 

De Blasio was elected to a local school board in his Brooklyn neighborhood in 1999 and won a City Council seat in 2001. In 2009, he was elected to the citywide position of public advocate, a job that holds little real power but comes with a bully pulpit that allowed de Blasio to build a reputation as a champion of regular citizens in a city built for the powerful.

 

He was not initially favored to win the 2013 race for the Democratic nomination for mayor but was helped by the implosion of rival Anthony Weiner’s campaign after the disgraced former congressman was accused in a new sexting scandal. 

 

De Blasio defeated Republican Joe Lhota by a wide margin in the 2013 general election for mayor. He won reelection in 2017, defeating Republican state Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis by 39 percentage points.

 

With his candidacy, de Blasio becomes the latest in a line of New York City mayors who have run for president. None has ever won.

 

John Lindsay sought the office in 1972. Rudy Giuliani ran in 2008. Michael Bloomberg flirted with a run for years before ruling it out in both the 2016 and 2020 campaigns.

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Biden Grows His Lead in Democratic Field Early in Race

Former vice president Joe Biden has surged into a big lead among the Democratic presidential contenders for 2020.

The latest polls show Biden with a healthy lead over Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and the rest of a large, diverse field of Democratic White House hopefuls.

Biden’s rise comes in part because many Democrats see him as perhaps the strongest challenger to President Donald Trump next year.

A new Reuters/Ipsos poll of Democratic and independent voters has Biden at 29%, Sanders at 13% and the rest of the field at 6% or below.

A Morning Consult poll this week also found Biden leading with 39% support, followed by Sanders at 19%, California Senator Kamala Harris and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, both at 8%; South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg with 6% and former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke at 5%.

More than 20 Democrats are now running for president with Montana Governor Steve Bullock and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio the latest to join the field. Bullock announced his candidacy in a campaign video that focused on campaign finance reform and battling Trump. De Blasio released a video early Thursday morning.

Front-runner

Biden took his front-runner presidential campaign into the key early-voting state of New Hampshire this week with a pitch that targeted Trump head-on.

“Let’s remember who we are. This is the United States of America. Anything we have set our mind to, we have never failed to accomplish,” Biden told voters in Hampton, New Hampshire. “I refuse to postpone any longer the possibilities for this country and we have to end it now, this administration.”

Biden has expanded his lead in the polls since he got in to the race last month. In the latest Reuters poll, he went from 24% late last month to 29% Wednesday.

But the 76-year-old Biden faces an energized Democratic field that is not shying away from drawing a contrast with the former vice president by advocating big change with an eye toward the future.

“We need big, systemic change in this country!” Warren said to cheers at a town hall in Ohio.

Warren is one of several women contenders in the Democratic field who hopes to mobilize a key Democratic constituency — female voters.

New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand had the same idea recently during a campaign swing through New Hampshire.

“I know I can win states like Ohio and Pennsylvania and Michigan and Wisconsin, the states we must win to defeat President Trump,” Gillibrand said.

Taking on Trump

Biden appears to be surging in the polls because many Democrats think he would be a strong candidate against Trump in next year’s presidential election.

“A lot of Democrats think, No. 1, he (Trump) is beatable, and No. 2, the country is in trouble under this person, big time, and that he is debasing a big chunk of the country and that needs to stop, and we need to do the stopping,” George Washington University analyst Matt Dallek told VOA recently.

A new Quinnipiac University poll seems to buttress the argument that Biden would give Trump a tough electoral test. The survey found Biden leading Trump by a margin of 53% to 42% in the key swing state of Pennsylvania, a state Trump won against Hillary Clinton in 2016 but which previously had voted Democratic in several recent presidential elections.

Biden has a clear edge in Pennsylvania even though 54% of those surveyed by Quinnipiac said they are better off financially today than they were in 2016. Twenty-one percent in the poll said they were worse off and 22% said their situation is the same.

Danger signs

However, recent polls also suggest some potential weaknesses for Biden. The latest Reuters/Ipsos poll found that the former vice president led in all demographic groups except for millennials (ages 18-37). They slightly preferred Sanders.

A recent Morning Consult/POLITICO survey found 42% of those who took part between the ages of 18 and 29 said they were less likely to support Biden because of his 2002 vote in support of the Iraq War.

Biden has 44 years of government experience behind him as first a senator from Delaware and then as President Barack Obama’s vice president.

Biden is quick to remind voters of his tenure with Obama, but his long record of Senate votes could give his Democratic rivals plenty of ammunition to use against him in the upcoming primary debates that begin next month.

It is a challenge that Biden and others with a long Washington record to defend will have to rise to, analyst Dallek said.

“I think that is what makes their path to the White House trickier because there is a lot there that can be attacked. And there are a lot of advantages to being in some ways relatively less seasoned because you are just not as big a target,” he said.

Trump watching

Trump appears to be following the Democratic race and did his own take on the battle between Biden and Sanders during his recent rally in Panama City, Florida.

“You have got a choice between ‘Sleepy Joe’ and ‘Crazy Bernie,’ and I will take any of them. Let’s just pick somebody please and let’s start this thing. Let’s start it. Pick somebody!” he told the crowd.

Picking a nominee who can take on Trump remains a priority for many Democratic voters. And many of them now believe that defeating the president will be no easy feat, according to Jim Kessler of the center-left policy group Third Way.

“You have to go after this campaign like the president is the favorite because he at least has a 50-50 shot at winning, and I would say probably a little bit greater,” Kessler said.

Democratic hopefuls sharpen messages

Some of the Democratic contenders seem to be adjusting their campaign approach in the wake of Biden’s polling surge.

Sanders has begun to focus more on his differences with Biden over the Iraq War, trade, the environment and health care.

O’Rourke has decided to step up his national television appearances, shifting away from a focus on local town halls after failing to catch fire in the polls.

And Harris has ramped up her criticism of Trump in recent weeks on the campaign trail, perhaps in response to the perception that Biden is succeeding by targeting the president directly.

Democrats hold their first debates next month but do not actually begin the nominating process until votes in Iowa and New Hampshire next February.

For the moment, though, Biden leads the field and is considered by many party insiders to be the clear front-runner, a status he never attained in his two previous runs for president.

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