WHITE HOUSE - The incumbent U.S. president and the top opposition party frontrunner seeking to unseat him next year overlapped in visits to the same key political state – a possible preview of a head-to-head match-up more than 500 days before the general election.
In Iowa on Tuesday, both U.S. President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden unleashed their most pointed attack yet of each other.
“He’s literally an existential threat to America,” Biden told a campaign rally in Ottumwa.
Later at Iowa Wesleyan University in Mount Pleasant, Biden criticized the president for cozying up to “dictators” such as North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
“Whether it’s me or not, it’s got to end,” Biden said of Trump’s presidency.
Later in the evening in Davenport, his third stop of the day, Biden accused Trump of “tearing down the guardrails of democracy.”
Before departing the White House for Iowa, Trump questioned the leading Democrat’s fitness for office, implying that Biden – who would be 78 when sworn into office – is not up to the top job physically and mentally.
WATCH: Trump-Biden 2020 race
“He looks different than he used to. He acts different than he used to. He’s even slower than he used to be,” the president told reporters of the potential opponent he has repeatedly referred to as “Sleepy Joe.”
Critics of Trump have made similar accusations about the president, who turns 73 on Friday.
Iowa, where agriculture is the top industry, was friendly territory for Trump in his first election – he won there by nine percentage points over his Democratic Party challenger, Hillary Clinton.
Trump faces no significant opposition in the Republican primary while two dozen Democrats are competing in Iowa and elsewhere.
“By appearing here while Democrats are also campaigning, he keeps himself in the public eye,” says Amy Erica Smith, an associate professor of political science at Iowa State University. “This is a long-term investment in his campaign, rather than a short-term one."
While Trump’s favorability among Republicans remains above 80% in the state, polls show more Iowa voters overall view him unfavorably than favorably by about eight percentage points.
“It's not completely clear whether the trade war is hurting him. It may be part of what's behind dropping poll numbers,” Smith tells VOA. “But for the moment it's being offset by low unemployment rates and a booming economy more generally.”
Iowa voters currently “are motivated by bread-and-butter issues, including jobs, the economy, health care, and mental health care,” adds Smith.
Barack Obama, as a Democrat, won the state twice before Trump turned it around for the Republicans in 2016.
“Democrats have a very good shot if they make the case to Iowans that they are on the side of working people there, and Trump isn’t,” contends Jesse Lee, vice president of communications at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, a liberal advocacy group.
“People in Iowa have had patience with Trump on trade, hoping that he will get a real deal with China that offsets the losses so far, but if he leans into permanent tariffs or comes up with a meaningless deal, patience may run out,” Lee tells VOA.
Biden is largely ignoring the pack of Democrats trailing him in Iowa and elsewhere – zeroing in on Trump for early and direct criticism.
“He thinks he’s being tough,” Biden said in Iowa. “Well, it’s easy to be tough when someone else is feeling the pain.”
Biden, who is making his third bid to become president, also asserted America’s farmers have been crushed by Trump’s tariffs on China.
In trademark fashion, Trump is seeking to portray Biden as a washed-up politician who was “taken off the trash heap” by Barack Obama to be vice president.
Trump also referred to Biden as “a dummy,” saying he’d rather run against the former vice president than any other Democrat.
“I think Joe is the weakest up here,” Trump said, pointing to his own head.
A Quinnipiac University national poll released Tuesday shows Biden trouncing Trump by a landslide proportion, 13%. The survey also indicates at least five other Democrats would also defeat the incumbent president but by narrower margins.
Trump, according to The New York Times, told aides to deny that his campaign’s internal polling also has him trailing Biden in many of the states he needs to win.
When some of the data leaked, showing Trump lagging in a cluster of critical so-called Rust Belt states, the newspaper reports, the president instructed aides to say publicly that other data indicates he is doing well.
Trump denies this, telling White House reporters: “I never do. My poll numbers are great.”