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How much attention should be paid to the verdict?

FILE - President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign event on April 16, 2024, in Scranton, Pennsylvania.  Joe Biden's campaign is signaling new plans to include Donald Trump's recent felony conviction as a core element of the Democratic president's reelection message.
FILE – President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign event on April 16, 2024, in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Joe Biden’s campaign is signaling new plans to include Donald Trump’s recent felony conviction as a core element of the Democratic president’s reelection message.Alex Brandon/AP

BRISTOL, Pa. (AP) — At its headquarters in Delaware, President Joe Biden’s campaign is signaling that Donald Trump’s recent felony conviction will be included as a core element of the Democratic incumbent president’s reelection message.

But in nearby battleground Pennsylvania, a state that could decide control of Congress and the presidency this fall, Democrats are far from certain that Trump’s criminal record matters to voters at all.

“It will have an effect, but a pretty small effect,” former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell said of Trump’s recent 34 convictions in the New York hush money case. “I don’t think we can count on that. We have to come out and win the elections by talking about the things that are important.”

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Less than a week after Trump became the first US president ever convicted of a crime, Biden’s Democratic Party has only just begun to navigate the delicate politics of the presumptive Republican nominee’s unprecedented legal status.

There are key voices within Biden’s campaign headquarters who believe Democrats should view Trump’s conviction as a major turning point in politics and history. Others favor a more cautious approach, fearing a backlash from voters if Democratic officials push too hard for a criminal conviction that Trump insists, without evidence, is “rigged” against him.

The Democrats’ decision could be crucial in the developing Biden-Trump rematch — and in the battle for control of the House of Representatives and the Senate.

The bottom line: On Wednesday, a senior adviser to the Biden campaign, granted anonymity to discuss internal strategy, said Trump’s felony conviction would become a regular part of the campaign message. But it will be part of a broader context in which the campaign will argue that Trump does not respect the American electoral process or the legal system.

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On Tuesday, Vice President Kamala Harris appeared on ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and dodged a light-hearted question about whether the people she watched the verdict with “acted like they weren’t happy” when the sentencing was announced.

She kept a straight face even as Kimmel and the audience laughed. Instead, Harris discussed the case and the jury’s deliberations before adding, “I think the reality is that cheaters don’t like to be caught and held accountable.”

Democratic pollster John Anzalone, who is advising Biden’s campaign, pushed back against those who warned of political risks if the president and downvoted Democrats overplay their hand.

“The man was convicted of 34 counts. How do you exaggerate that?” Anzalone said of Trump. “This belief really sickens voters.”

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Anzalone continued: “Democrats know they still need to talk about the future and what they have done to help American families and the economy. But at the end of the day, this (belief) is a big problem.”

It makes no sense that Biden will give up other campaign priorities while leaning into Trump’s legal troubles.

The Democratic president even announced plans Tuesday to immediately implement significant restrictions on migrants seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border, as the White House seeks to neutralize immigration as a political imperative. He is also focusing on the Republican Party’s efforts to further erode abortion rights while promoting his moves to curb inflation, lower prescription drug costs and improve the nation’s infrastructure.

And in her interview with Kimmel, Harris shifted from talking about the case to mentioning Biden’s efforts to lower drug prices and cap insulin costs for some Americans.

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Trump campaign senior adviser Jason Miller dismissed questions about Biden’s evolving strategy and instead pointed to the criminal case against Biden’s son Hunter, who faces three charges related to the October 2018 purchase of a gun and separately is followed by accusations that he traded on his family name to do business abroad.

“Crooked Joe Biden will do everything he can to distract from Hunter’s trial and the fact that his family has raked in tens of millions of dollars from China, Russia and Ukraine,” Miller said. “The Biden family criminal empire is all coming to an end on November 5, and never again will a Biden sell government access for personal gain.”

The rest of the Democratic Party could ultimately follow Biden’s lead on convicting Trump, but as Biden’s campaign quietly revealed its intentions to focus on it at least somewhat, Democratic leaders still offered a cautious outlook.

In an interview, Rep. Suzan DelBene, chair of the House Democrats’ campaign arm, declined to say whether she would use the term “convicted felon” to describe Trump in her committee’s massive paid advertising campaign in coming months. She also would not say whether it is more likely that Democrats will win the majority in the House of Representatives as a result of Trump’s conviction.

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But DelBene said she would ensure that vulnerable Republicans in the House of Representatives would have to answer for their “blind loyalty” to Trump in elections across America, especially after the recent conviction. Republicans on Capitol Hill last week overwhelmingly condemned the jury’s unanimous verdict that Trump broke the law by concealing hush money payments to an adult film actress in a way intended to benefit his first presidential campaign.

“We are going to hold Republicans accountable for this,” DelBene said. “They do not respect the rule of law.”

The issue is already proving to be a major dividing line in Pennsylvania’s first congressional district in suburban Bucks County, one of the most important swing regions in American politics. As Bucks goes this fall, so too could things go with control of Congress and the White House.

Democratic House nominee Ashley Ehasz, a 35-year-old former Army helicopter pilot, took advantage of Trump’s condemnation in an interview and called for the silence of her opponent, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, who has represented the Philadelphia suburb since 2019 .

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While many Republicans in Congress rushed to defend Trump after his guilty verdict, Fitzpatrick has avoided the issue altogether. His office ignored multiple requests for comment this week.

“We now have a convicted felon who is the leader of the Republican Party, and Brian Fitzpatrick doesn’t have the courage to say, ‘He’s not worthy of my support,’” Ehasz told The Associated Press. “There are no more moderate members of the Republican Party in the House of Representatives.”

While Fitzpatrick remained silent, Republican Rep. Mike Kelly, who represents a Republican-leaning district in the northwestern part of the state, said his constituents are disappointed with the verdict. He’s concerned they’ll become so frustrated with politics that they won’t vote this fall.

“What I’m worried about is people starting to say I’m out of the running,” Kelly said in an interview. ‘I say, that’s the worst thing you can do. Do not stop.”

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An ABC News/Ipsos poll conducted in the wake of the verdict found that perceptions of Trump and Biden did not change meaningfully from before the verdict.

The poll also found that about half of Americans believe Trump should end his presidential campaign because of the conviction. That finding is also essentially unchanged since before the verdict and is heavily driven by partisanship, with three-quarters of Republicans in the most recent poll saying Trump should not end his campaign.

In Pennsylvania, former U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, who lost a 2022 Senate bid in the Democratic primary, lost to the current senator. John Fetterman suggested that voters simply care about other issues.

‘If there is danger, you take your eye off the ball, right? I mean, the conviction is a big, shiny thing that the media has paid a lot of attention to,” he said. “That’s not what voters care about, and that indirectly tells them that you may not share their priorities.”

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That said, Lamb added, “I have great confidence in the judgment of the president and his team.”

Associated Press writers Lisa Mascaro, Amelia Thomson DeVeaux and Seung Min Kim in Washington contributed to this report.

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