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This Memorial Day weekend heralds a bitter campaign season ahead

Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN

(CNN) — Labor Day traditionally heralds the final push for presidential campaigns, but a frenetic, compressed calendar this year means the critical marker is the holiday that signals the start of summer rather than the one that marks its end.

Monday’s Memorial Day holiday will be a prelude to a bitter season of politics with a neck-and-neck presidential election already looking almost certain to come down to a few thousand votes in a handful of swing states. The heat will be even more intense because the clash between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump will for only the second time ever see two presidents each dueling for a second term.

The unprecedented nature of the 2024 race will be immediately underscored on Tuesday when Trump returns to the Manhattan courtroom where he is facing his first criminal trial. He is accused of falsifying financial records to cover up a hush money payment to an adult film star before the 2016 election. (He’s pleaded not guilty and denied the alleged affair with the actress.) After a monthlong trial, lawyers for both sides will crystalize their cases in closing summations before the judge hands the jury the historic task of deciding for the first time whether an ex-president and presumptive nominee will be convicted of a crime.

It remains unclear how a conviction or an acquittal would reverberate in a polarized nation during a presidential race that has been remarkably stable with neither candidate able to break away. Would the historic stain of a felony conviction for Trump further alienate the critical suburban swing-state voters who may decide the election? Or has Trump been so successful in spreading his narrative that he’s a victim of politically motivated prosecutions that the impact of a guilty verdict would be neutralized? The former president would almost certainly use an acquittal to argue that his other three criminal indictments are baseless. And with those cases unlikely to come to trial before November’s election, a campaign intertwined with Trump’s legal problems would suddenly look more like a traditional election — albeit one featuring the most unorthodox ex-president of modern times, who tried to overturn democracy after losing the last election to Biden.

As soon as the verdict is announced in New York, attention will switch to the unusually early first presidential debate at the end of June on CNN. Biden, who has been consistently a little behind in swing-state polls, has a strong interest in an earlier-than-usual head-to-head confrontation that could change the momentum in the race. The president also wants Americans to tune into Trump’s wild, anti-democratic personality and focus on how extreme a second term that his rival has said he’d devote to retribution would be. While presidential debates have traditionally been in the fall, the growing prevalence of early and mail-in voting is a reason to shift debates earlier. A second presidential debate has been scheduled for September on ABC, and while Trump is pushing for more one-on-one showdowns with Biden, the president’s campaign is resisting his demands.

Biden seizes on new abortion controversy to discomfort Trump

With the Trump trial on hold ahead of the Memorial Day holiday, Thursday brought a preview of how the rest of the campaign might unfold. Biden argued that a new bill approved by Louisiana lawmakers that would classify abortion-inducing drugs as controlled dangerous substances was a “direct result of Trump overturning Roe v. Wade.” He was referring to the conservative Supreme Court majority that Trump built that eradicated the nationwide constitutional right to an abortion. “This is a scary time for women across America. If Donald Trump regains power, he will try to make what is happening in states like Louisiana a reality nationwide,” Biden said.

Abortion is one of the few issues where polls show Biden enjoys higher public approval than Trump, and Democrats are counting on it driving up their turnout at a moment when there are serious questions about the durability of Biden’s electoral coalition. The former president has waffled on abortion and his latest position that decisions on the issue should be left to the states does little to protect him politically every time a conservative state or judge takes a hardline anti-abortion position.

Another of the key developments to watch this summer will be whether the ex-president is able to maintain what some polls suggest is an unusually strong position for a Republican among minority voters. Biden is taking urgent steps to shore up his support in communities that usually vote overwhelmingly Democrat. He, for instance, issued two new ads on Thursday implicitly accusing Trump of being a racist, recalling the former president’s call for the death penalty for the Central Park Five, a group of minority teenagers falsely accused of beating and raping a woman in New York’s Central Park in the 1980s. The ads also reminded voters about Trump’s racist conspiracy theory about the birthplace of former President Barack Obama. The Trump campaign accused Biden of trying to “gaslight Black voters” and highlighted Biden’s support as a senator for a 1990s crime bill that raised incarceration rates for Black Americans.

In what was billed as an attempt to reach out to Black and Hispanic voters, the former president held a rally in the Bronx on Thursday, in a rare visit for a Republican to one of the country’s most Democratic counties. The former president used the opportunity to argue that minorities were suffering because of what he claims is out-of-control migration — the issue at the core of his campaign. “These millions and millions of people that are coming into our country, the biggest impact and the biggest negative impact is against our Black population and our Hispanic population, who are losing their jobs, losing their housing, losing everything they can lose,” Trump said.

Trump’s event followed a visit by Biden to Morehouse College — the alma mater of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – in Georgia last weekend in which he took implicit aim at Trump and his right-wing supporters, warning that when “old ghosts in new garments seize power, extremists come for the freedoms you thought belonged to you and everyone.”

Biden has multiple vulnerabilities

Biden also used his Moorehouse speech to try and insulate himself from another of his vulnerabilities heading into the final months of the campaign — the fury among young and progressive voters about his support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu amid Israel’s war in Gaza, which has killed tens of thousands of civilians. “This is one of the hardest, most complicated problems in the world,” Biden said, adding that he was working around the clock for a ceasefire and toward the distant prospect of a Palestinian state. “There’s nothing easy about it. I know it angers and frustrates many of you, including my family. But most of all, I know it breaks your heart. It breaks mine as well.”

But on Thursday, the president was given a reminder of the backlash against America’s Israel policies with the eruption of another protest like the ones that have rattled college campuses across the country. Demonstrators chanted “divest now!” as they demanded UCLA pull out of any investments linked to Israel in a largely peaceful protest in Los Angeles. Any large-scale resumption of protests in the run-up to the election, or at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August, could play into Trump’s hands as he claims that law and order is spinning out of control under Biden and would raise further questions about the president’s capacity to achieve strong support from younger and more progressive voters. Biden badly needs the war in Gaza to ease over the summer, but there is no sign that Netanyahu is willing to heed his calls for a lowering of the conflict’s intensity.

The president will also be hoping this summer for the cut in interest rates by the Federal Reserve that he has long predicted would come and that could give some relief to Americans weary of the cost of homes and vehicles and high prices at supermarkets. The financial crunch has hollowed out Biden’s reputation for economic management despite robust growth and low unemployment and offered Trump an advantage on the issue that decides most US elections. The former president has been creating an idealized vision of the economy during his term, before the Covid-19 pandemic caused a crash.

“The costs have gone up so much,” Trump said in the Bronx. “I don’t eat bacon anymore, it’s too expensive,” the billionaire former real estate tycoon said.

Inflation has fallen substantially — to 3.4% year on year last month — well below 40-year highs after the pandemic. But many Americans have yet to see the impact in their wallets — one reason why Trump has an advantage on the perennial election question when voters ask themselves whether they are better off than they were four years ago.

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