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Trump attacks on Baltimore, Cummings become political litmus test, with Democratic presidential debates ahead

The Rev. Al Sharpton spoke at a previously scheduled event on home ownership at a Baltimore church, criticizing President Donald Trump's tweets about Baltimore.

Three days of dizzying tweets by President Donald Trump thrust Baltimore into the center of a volatile national debate about race and urban poverty that has politicians, pundits and celebrities eagerly choosing sides.

The Republican president’s tweets — which called Democratic U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings a racist and “brutal bully" in a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested” Baltimore district — have made the city a political litmus test, with the second round of Democratic presidential debates scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday nights.

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By the eve of the debates in Detroit, many of the contenders and others were lined up in defense of Cummings and the city, while Trump supporters took to social media to amplify the president’s message that the 68-year-old African American congressman neglected his majority-black district and that it was Democrats who were guilty of playing the “race card.”

“It’ll be a big debate topic,” said Denver-based pollster Floyd Ciruli. "For Democrats, it plays perfectly to the base, which is very interested in taking him on over race issues."

On Monday, Trump expanded his weekend attacks on Baltimore to include those coming to the defense of the city and Cummings. The president claimed the Rev. Al Sharpton hates white people and police officers, and questioned why Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders shouldn’t be called a racist for likening the poverty he observed in West Baltimore in 2015 to a “Third World” country.

Trump tied his social media assault to his re-election campaign, tweeting that Democrats will face “a long road to 2020” if they defend “King Elijah’s Baltimore Fail” and four Democratic congresswomen of color whom the president has said should "go back” to other countries.

He continued to rail against Cummings on Monday evening, writing on Twitter that federal funding designated for Baltimore “was stolen or wasted.”

Many of the Democratic presidential contenders used the president’s Baltimore tweets to try to reinforce campaign themes, including some critical of Trump’s attitude about race.

“Donald Trump’s tweets are ugly and racist. They’re purposefully designed to turn us against one another,” U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who will speak in Tuesday’s debate, tweeted Saturday.

Another candidate, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California, located her headquarters in Baltimore last winter — a decision her campaign says showcases her commitment to uplifting communities in need.

“I am proud our campaign headquarters is in Rep. Elijah Cummings’ district,” she tweeted Saturday. “Baltimore has become home to my team and it’s disgraceful the president has chosen to start his morning disparaging this great American city.”

Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont who also ran for president in 2016, not only struck back Monday at Trump, but offered a campaign message that he has been “fighting to lift the people of Baltimore and elsewhere out of poverty with good paying jobs, housing and health care.”

Many others joined Monday in the political tussle.

They included Sharpton, the activist and media personality who stood in West Baltimore in front of a banner — it bore the logo of his National Action Network and the slogan “No Justice, No Peace” — and accused Trump of having “a particular venom for blacks and people of color.”

Sharpton was joined by Michael Steele, a former Republican lieutenant governor of Maryland and Republican National Committee chairman who is also now a media personality. Steele challenged Trump to come to West Baltimore and talk with residents to learn about their challenges.

The list of personalities who have rallied behind Baltimore also includes former First Lady Michelle Obama.

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Democrat Ben Jealous, a former Maryland gubernatorial candidate who is considering running for Baltimore mayor, tweeted Sunday: “If you have any doubts about the greatness of our city or it’s people, give us a call. We’d be happy to give you a tour.”

The founder of Under Armour, the Baltimore-based athletic apparel company, entered the political fray with an Instagram post on Sunday that not only defended the city, but repeated a message that is part of its marketing pitch — its commitment to Baltimore.

“Work to be done but we are of this city and for this city,” said the message from Kevin Plank that included a 2017 Under Armour video depicting city neighborhoods, street scenes and athletes.

Trump promoted a meeting Monday at the White House, saying on Twitter in the afternoon that he was looking forward to talking with “wonderful Inner City pastors!” One of the participants said the meeting had been scheduled prior to Trump’s initial tweets about Baltimore.

Afterward, the niece of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., spoke in positive terms about the Trump administration’s contributions. Alveda King told reporters that employment was up in black communities and that historically black colleges and universities were faring well under Trump’s administration.

“Well, you know, America is troubled. And if we say we’re colorblind, we need to put on our glasses,” she said. “We can see. We can see a troubled America, but we can see a blessed America. ... We have an opportunity to continue to be blessed, and we have a president’s who’s listening. And I was glad to pray with him today."

The Rev. Donte Hickman, an East Baltimore pastor who was scheduled to host Trump in his community last winter, said he was invited Monday to the meeting but couldn’t go because he was “unavailable."

Last December, Hickman did attend a White House meeting at which Trump promoted his efforts on behalf of the “opportunity zones” program, which is designed to attract billions of dollars of private investment and government resources to distressed communities.

As Trump tweeted through last weekend, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan was criticized, including by former Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley, for not speaking out forcefully against Trump, a fellow Republican.

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Democrats have frequently sought to tie Hogan to Trump, who is unpopular in Maryland.

State Del. Stephanie Smith, a Baltimore Democrat, tweeted Saturday to Hogan that “surely you will stand up and defend the largest city in the state you govern from pathetic and racist attacks.”

“Enough is enough,” Hogan said in an interview on WBAL-AM’s “C4″ show. “People are completely fed up with this kind of nonsense. Why are we not focused on solving the problems and getting to work? ... Quite frankly, what is the president doing? What is the Congress doing?”

Baltimore has been fodder in national political discourse before, although rarely in such a visible way.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump talked about immigrant gangs in Baltimore and other cities.

“You know a lot of the gangs that you see in Baltimore and in St. Louis and Ferguson and Chicago, do you know they're illegal immigrants?” Trump said during a Republican debate in 2015. “They’re here illegally. And they're rough dudes. Rough people.”

Baltimore officials disputed that gang problems were fueled in a substantial way by undocumented immigrants.

President Barack Obama was the last sitting president to come to Baltimore. He visited in 2015 to promote a family leave proposal.

Baltimore Sun reporters Luke Broadwater, Ian Duncan and Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

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