CNN  — 

Joe Biden’s do-no-harm campaign is taking a sharper edge as his race with President Donald Trump enters the home stretch and the incumbent, now a week removed from the Republican convention’s sugar high, is again lashing out in response to a new series of self-made controversies.

On the eve of Labor Day weekend, Biden, in his second press conference of the week, reacted furiously to a report that Trump, in private conversations, described American soldiers killed in combat as “suckers.” Biden called the remarks “absolutely damnable” and called on the President, if the story’s details are true, to apologize to the families of US military veterans and war dead.

The alleged comments, as first recounted in The Atlantic on Thursday, have been met with a frenzied onslaught of denials from the White House and Trump personally, who has called the report a “hoax.” But their rush to undermine the story, which a former senior administration official largely confirmed to CNN on Saturday and which various other outlets have partially corroborated, underscores the political peril Trump sees ahead – and, if nothing else, its potential to detract from their efforts to turn this election into a partisan choice and not simply a referendum on his first four years.

Biden made the issue – which could dampen Trump’s support with military families and veterans – personal during a back-and-forth with reporters in Wilmington, Delaware, on Friday, recalling the record of his late son, Beau.

“My son was an assistant US attorney and he volunteered to go to Kosovo, when the war was going on, as a civilian, he wasn’t a ‘sucker,’” Biden said, his face stern as he hammered on the offending term. “When my son volunteered and joined the United States military as the Attorney General (of Delaware), he went to Iraq for a year, won the Bronze Star and other commendations, he wasn’t a ‘sucker.’”

Biden has in the months since winning the Democratic nomination sought to steer clear of Trump-lit brush fires, instead focusing his criticism of the President on the administration’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic. The country’s death toll is now creeping up on 200,000 and, according to a model from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, could more than double that figure by January if the US continues on its current path.

“(Trump) doesn’t feel it, he doesn’t understand, he just doesn’t care. He thinks if the stock market is up, then everything is fine,” said Biden, who struck a populist chord in this latest denunciation. “If his wealthy donors and friends are doing well, then everything is doing well. If corporations see their valuations rising, then they must be hiring.”

In his own news conference later in the day, Trump came out and offered a rote commentary on what he touted as positive economic news in a jobs report released Friday, before returning to misleading messages about the pandemic and a full frontal assault on The Atlantic story.

But if it was Trump’s goal to cast doubt on the details in the magazine, to suggest he couldn’t have denigrated the war dead because of his purported reverence for the military, he chose a strange way of communicating it.

Reminded of his past derogatory comments about the late Sen. John McCain, the President said he “respected” the man who served nearly six years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, before repeatedly dumping on veterans legislation that McCain, along with Sen. Bernie Sanders, co-authored and passed during the Obama administration.

Trump also suggested that his former chief of staff, John Kelly, might have been a source for The Atlantic’s piece, before trying to convince Americans that the former US Marine Corps general had crumbled in the crucible of Trump’s plush West Wing office space.

“He was with me, didn’t do a good job, had no temperament, and ultimately he was petered out,” Trump said of Kelly, whose son was killed in action nearly a decade ago in Afghanistan. “He got eaten alive. He was unable to handle the pressure of this job.”

Contrasting styles

The Friday news conferences offered Americans yet another jarring contrast between Trump and Biden, capping off a week of the same. Both men visited Kenosha, Wisconsin, which has been gripped by protests and rioting in response to a police officer’s shooting – seven times, in the back – of Jacob Blake, a Black man, on August 23.

But Trump used his visit, almost exclusively, to highlight the scenes of looting and burnt out buildings. Biden, when he touched down later in the week, both condemned the violence and spoke about systemic racism and racial justice issues during remarks at the Grace Lutheran Church. He also had a private conversation with members of Blake’s family and spoke to the 29-year-old on the phone.

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Back in his home state on Friday, Biden framed the race – as he has for months – as less of a choice between him and Trump than a question of whether the country wanted to go further down the Trumpian rabbit hole. But, perhaps more so than ever before, he seemed intent on delivering a more pointedly passionate case against it.

He lambasted and lamented Trump’s suggestion, on consecutive nights, to supporters in North Carolina and Pennsylvania that they try voting twice – once by mail, then again in-person – to test election security measures. It is illegal to vote twice, as assorted legal experts, election officials and state attorneys general reminded Americans in response.

The former vice president reiterated that point, but also dug into the psychology of the matter, casting the comments as another attempt by Trump to “create so much chaos that no matter what the outcome of the election is, that it’s thrown up in the air.” Asked then if he was concerned that Trump’s flagrant effort to gin up doubts over mail-in voting were taking hold, Biden answered, simply: “Yes, I am.”

“The more chaos is sown here, it’s going to disincline people to show up,” he said, channeling the wisdom of voting rights experts, who say that vague, constant chatter about voter suppression – even in attempts to combat it – can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. “In a sense, every time I speak about it, I feel like I’m playing into his game.”

On Friday night, Trump tripled down, telling supporters in North Carolina during a “telerally” to both post their mail-in ballots and attempt to vote in-person.

Stepping into the ring

Engaging with Trump on Trump’s terms has proven itself over the years to be a losing endeavor, for both Republicans and Democrats. Biden and his campaign have sought to keep at least one foot out of the President’s mud pit. That decision was made to look all the wiser this week as a variety of polls showed Biden leading Trump, as he does in every reputable national poll, and ahead of Trump or running neck-and-neck with him in key swing states.

Biden campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon told reporters on a call on Friday that she believed the race is “pretty stable under the hood” as she ticked off a number of demographics – including suburbanites and independents – with which polls showed Biden outperforming 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

View Trump and Biden head-to-head polling

Mike Donilon, Biden’s chief strategist, said on the same call that the coronavirus would remain the campaign’s prime focus, for the simple reason that – whether viewed as a health or economic issue, or both – it remains a consuming worry to millions of Americans.

Trump’s efforts to move on from the pandemic, he said, would not be successful, because “that is where voters are,” adding that the President’s attempts to shift the conversation with headline-grabbing, outlandish comments would backfire.

“When there is intense focus on President Trump and what he is saying and what he is doing,” Donilon said, “I think there’s a lot of evidence over the course of this race that his numbers tend to drop.”

For parts of a week and a few captivating hours at its end, though, Biden committed to leaving his own mark. Now, as the first rounds of ballots begin to go out to voters ahead of an election less than 60 days off, Biden and his team appear determined to help Trump along a path they believe ends with the President’s political demise.

This story has been updated with additional developments.