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Analysis: Trump upends GOP strategy on assault claim

Lisa Mascaro, AP Congressional Correspondent

President Donald Trump speaks at a spending bill signing ceremony at VA Southern Nevada Healthcare System, Friday, Sept. 21, 2018, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Donald Trump went there.

Republicans for days have been trying, with some success, not to blame the accuser in the high-stakes he-said-she-said roiling the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh. They calibrated their comments to avoid openly antagonizing Christine Blasey Ford, and by extension the women voters ahead of the November election.

But in a single tweet, Trump appears to have upended that strategy.

"I have no doubt that, if the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities by either her or her loving parents," the president tweeted.

"Judge Brett Kavanaugh is a fine man," he added, "with an impeccable reputation, who is under assault by radical left wing politicians."

Attacking Ford, as Trump did, hardened the standoff between Ford and Senate Republicans into a risky, and now direct, confrontation. With the midterm election just 46 days away, the GOP can't afford to lose more women voters than they already have in the Trump era, particularly in crucial suburban districts that could decide control of the House.

Yet even before Trump's outburst, the party discipline on Kavanaugh's accuser was cracking

Stoking outrage, a prominent conservative floated an unsubstantiated theory on Twitter that someone else had actually committed the assault. Republicans quickly tried to distance themselves from the tweets.

Nevada GOP Sen. Dean Heller, who is facing a difficult re-election race, told supporters on a conference call the accusations were a "hiccup" and that Kavanaugh would be confirmed, according to a report in the Nevada Independent.

In South Carolina, GOP Rep. Ralph Norman opened an election debate at the Kiwanis Club making light of the allegations with a joke.

"Did y'all hear this latest late-breaking news from the Kavanaugh hearings?" he said, according to the Post and Courier. "Ruth Bader Ginsburg came out that she was groped by Abraham Lincoln."

Mississippi Republican Chris McDaniel, a Senate candidate, dismissed the "made-up" scandal. "All of the sudden, that disqualifies this man?" he said on the "Focal Point" show on American Family Radio. "No, not a chance."

The party has been down this road before. Since even before the election, Trump has been fending off allegations of his own behavior — including a recording from years ago saying that, as a famous person, he could grope women with impunity — and lawsuits. And Trump backed Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore despite allegations of sexual impropriety with younger women.

Kavanaugh's nomination was supposed to be a centerpiece of the GOP's argument for keeping control of the Senate. It would be a major accomplishment, showing conservatives and Christian evangelicals why they supported Trump for president in the first place.

But that was before Kavanaugh's confirmation was transformed into a do-over of the 1991 Clarence Thomas hearings, which launched the Year of the Woman in 1992. Law professor Anita Hill accused Thomas, then a Supreme Court nominee, of sexual harassment. Thomas denied the allegation and was confirmed to the high court.

Following in Hill's footsteps, Ford went public in The Washington Post on Sunday with her accusation that Kavanaugh groped her and muffled her cries as he tried to pull off her clothes during a party in high school.

Kavanaugh, the Yale-educated appellate court judge who worked in the George W. Bush White House, denies the claim and said he wants to testify "as soon as possible, so that I can clear my name."

Ford initially appeared reluctant to follow through on her offer to testify. Republicans seemed relieved that she might not show and began to talk of how they might soon have to move on.

But now Ford says she's willing to testify publicly next week. Her attorneys are in negotiations with Republicans about how and under what conditions.

Steve Schmidt, a veteran political strategist who left the Republican Party this year, said Ford testifying before the Judiciary Committee is "the worst conceivable outcome" for the GOP, because all 11 Republicans on the panel are men.

The hearing will appear in "1000s of campaign ads" and further "sever" the GOP's relationship with college-educated suburban women, Schmidt said. "For a generation of American women, it will cause PTSD because of the Anita Hill hearings."

Republicans are mindful of mistakes made during the Hill hearings and do not want to repeat them. Their solution: hiring a female attorney to question Ford. That would save them from the optics of 11 Republican men — it's an all-male line up on the GOP side of the Judiciary Committee — questioning a woman about the details of a sexual assault. The Republicans are reaching out to potential hires now.

Democrats face their own complications, as senators from Trump-won states — Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, Joe Donnelly in Indiana and Joe Manchin in West Virginia — have yet to decide how they'll vote. Before the assault allegation, supporting Kavanaugh had offered them a chance to side with Trump, who remains popular in many of the red states, while showing independence from their own party.

"This was always going to be a difficult vote for red-state Democrats, and it's only become harder," said Alex Conant, a GOP strategist.

"Now it's the biggest story in the country and everybody is looking to see how the Democrats in Trump-country vote."

Strategists from both parties said they were awaiting fresh polling on Kavanaugh that could provide better insight on how voters were viewing the situation.

But for Republicans, particularly in the Senate, it appeared that the only outcome potentially worse than confirming Kavanaugh was not confirming him at all.

"We're supposed to listen, but we're also supposed to get results," said Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota. "Judge Kavanaugh clearly is supported to be the next member of the United States Supreme Court, and we'll move forward with this process and allow the votes to be counted."

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Lisa Mascaro has covered Congress since 2010. She has also traveled the country covering congressional races and presidential politics.

Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/lisamascaro