Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

President Trump and his top advisers are trying to rebrand Joe Biden as a danger to America — with some aides admitting privately that the "Sleepy Joe" nickname will never gin up the visceral reaction they exploited against "Crooked Hillary" Clinton.

Driving the news: The emerging strategy is to claim Biden's mental faculties are diminished and say he can't rein in protesters' most controversial excesses, including toppling a Ulysses S. Grant statue, looting stores, burning buildings and vandalizing St. John's Church.

Why it matters: Trump is trailing in key states, and some of his advisers say they're running out of time to make suburban moms so scared of "Uncle Joe" that they'll vote for Trump.

  • A growing number of Trump's advisers say their best shot is to convince voters that the avuncular Biden won't really run the show if elected.

"We need to be demonizing him," said a Republican lawmaker who talks regularly to Trump. The lawmaker said "Sleepy Joe" sounds harmless, congenial and low key. "Sleepy probably sounds nice to a lot of people right now, with everything that's going on," he said.

  • In April's NBC/WSJ poll, only 25% of voters held a "very negative" view of Biden. In the NBC/WSJ poll of April 2016, meanwhile, 42% of voters held a "very negative" view of Hillary Clinton. Trump's figure is similar to Clinton's — around 43% of voters today say they hold a "very negative" view of him (53% were "very negative" on Trump in April 2016).
  • In recent days, Trump has sought to cast a more sinister light over Biden, replacing "Sleepy Joe" with "Corrupt Joe," the Washington Post first reported.

Behind the scenes: Trump's aides say it will be harder to make Biden widely despised than it was with Clinton, who was a conservative media target for decades.

  • "You're not going to make Joe Biden hated personally," said a source involved in the internal discussions. "You can't do it through personality."
  • So they will try to argue that he wouldn't really be in charge. "You've got to make it so that a vote for Joe Biden isn't a vote for Joe Biden, it's really a vote for his radical left-wing puppet masters," the source said.

Between the lines: Trump and some of his top advisers and surrogates have been testing variations on that theme.

  • Trump campaign senior adviser Jason Miller often sends out talking points to Trump insiders, which he calls "Quick Bites." Last Monday's talkers, reviewed by Axios, included this point: "The left-wing mob controlling Joe Biden's campaign and the Democratic Party has gone too far. Statues of Teddy Roosevelt and defunding the police is just the beginning, and Joe Biden is too weak to make them stop."
  • In Thursday night's town hall with Fox News' Sean Hannity, Trump didn't use the phrase "Sleepy Joe," according to the Fox transcripts.
  • He did say: "I don't think Biden's a radical left, but it doesn't matter because they're going to just do whatever they want to do. They'll take him over. ... Whether you like it or not, he's shot. The radical left is going to take him over."
  • Both Donald Trump Jr. and Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale have made versions of this pitch in recent days.

Yes, but: It's not at all clear that any of these new attacks will work.

  • Trump's advisers have long argued over the most effective way of attacking Biden, and in the most recent NYT/Siena College poll, more than 60% of voters disagreed with the notion that Biden was too old to be an effective president.
  • Biden is 77; Trump is 74.
  • It's also a bit of a head-scratcher as to how Biden can be both "Corrupt Joe" — which suggests a degree of agency — and totally incapacitated.

Biden campaign response: "During the entire clown car parade of shattered, failed, and recycled lies that is the Trump campaign, Donald Trump has never been able to stop telling on himself," Biden's director of rapid response, Andrew Bates, said in a statement.

  • Bates listed Trump vulnerabilities, including the coronavirus response, China and questions of mental acuity, noting how Trump mused about whether doctors could inject disinfectant into people to treat the virus.
  • "Whoever comes up with these attacks," Bates said, "we should honestly be paying them."

Go deeper

Polls show Trump has fight on his hands in Kansas and Montana

Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Public and private polling shows President Trump "not only trailing badly in swing states like Michigan and Wisconsin, but running closely with [Joe] Biden in traditionally conservative bastions like Kansas and Montana," the New York Times reports.

Why it matters: Trump won each of those states in 2016 by 20 points. If he's in dogfights there, his map is on fire.

Why Scranton matters again in 2020

Biden and Clinton visit Biden's childhood home in Scranton in 2016. Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The hometown of Joe Biden and "The Office" is polishing its perennial status as a guidepost for the nation's political mood.

Driving the news: Biden returns to Scranton, Pa., today with a campaign stop just outside the city limits at a metalworking plant, where he'll deliver remarks on a plan to create jobs and "help America build back better."

Scoop: Don Jr. plans convention-week Biden book

Cover via Don Jr.

Donald Trump Jr., in quarantine since girlfriend Kimberly Guilfoyle tested positive for the coronavirus, says he's used the time to finish a book that he'll self-publish the week of the Republican convention, at the end of August.

What he's saying: Don Jr., whose controversial blasts connect with President Trump's base, told me in a phone interview that "Liberal Privilege" will be his effort to paint a picture of Joe Biden and his record that the press ignores.