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TRENTON, N.J. – In New Jersey, a candidate running for governor compared the Trump camp to Nazis. In Virginia, a doctor running for governor fired up a gathering of Democrats by calling Trump a "narcissistic maniac," while his primary opponent called Trump's victory a "political and constitutional Sept. 11."
Former first lady Michelle Obama may have rallied Democrats during last year's presidential campaign by saying "when they go low, we go high," but attacking the unpopular President Donald Trump has become an essential element in Democratic campaigns in the country's two contests for governor this year.
The races are among the first high-profile displays of how Democrats are campaigning in the Trump era and could be a harbinger of their strategy in the midterm elections in 2018, when the president's standing with voters could sway elections.
"It almost feels like it's Vietnam War time. We haven't seen this in generations," said Maggie Moran, a veteran New Jersey Democratic strategist. "There's no question that it's emblematic of what the future will bring in 2018 as a referendum on the Trump presidency."
Out of power nationally and struggling to find a cohesive message, Democrats appear eager to take the rhetorical gloves off. They have a chance to control all the levers of power in New Jersey, and in Virginia they want to retain the governorship to check a Republican Legislature and maintain control over redistricting after the 2020 Census.
Republicans called it "offensive and despicable" when New Jersey's Phil Murphy, a former ambassador to Germany and Wall Street executive, compared the incoming Trump administration to the rise of the Nazis.
Tom Perriello, former Democratic congressman and Virginia candidate for governor, apologized after the GOP said his labeling of Trump's victory as a "political and constitutional Sept. 11" was offensive. His primary opponent, Ralph Northam, has also gotten in on Trump bashing, saying at a campaign event that "we need to make sure that that narcissistic maniac doesn't come anywhere close to Virginia."
Even the Democratic National Committee's new boss, Tom Perez, a onetime county politician from Maryland suburbia, recently said Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan "don't give a s--- about people." He tweeted "Sorry not sorry" after GOP officials called on him to apologize.
Perez's comments came around the time Republicans in Congress were getting an earful at town halls from constituents angry at Trump, as the party fights for a U.S. House seat in suburban Atlanta that is going to a runoff election in June and after the recent close loss in the GOP stronghold of Kansas in a special House race. Those races were watched closely for signs of backlash against Trump's agenda, but the Democrats didn't attack him as sharply as the gubernatorial candidates.
It's an aggressive style not unlike how Trump campaigned and is aimed at appealing to Democratic primary voters and revving up the base. While Democrats are pulling a page from the GOP playbook and unapologetically going on the attack, Republicans view the attacks as a sign that Democrats are obscuring policy ideas that don't appeal to independent and moderate voters.
"My guess is that Democrats have made the calculation that attacking Trump is a better strategy than admitting how they would govern," said veteran New Jersey Republican political consultant Chris Russell. "Sounds a lot like Hillary Clinton's campaign, and we all know how that turned out."
Democrats are in strong position in New Jersey, where they outnumber Republicans and where Chris Christie, a term-limited Republican, is one of the country's most unpopular governors. In Virginia, Democrats have won every statewide election since 2009.
Murphy is a wealthy former Goldman Sachs executive financing his campaign with a $10 million personal loan. His campaign regularly blasts Trump, critiquing his proposed travel ban as "un-American" and the work to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act as a payout to special interests at the expense of elderly and poorer people.
Murphy, also ambassador to Germany in the Obama administration, doesn't think his diplomatic background hurts in a year when Democrats want to deliver a message to Trump and Republicans by bashing their policies. But he's sensitive about going too far.
"We have to walk and chew gum," Murphy said. "If we vacate the space of our laser focus of what we have to do to get New Jersey right, why are we running? I also don't want anyone to ever ask, 'Where were you when all that (Trump) stuff was happening?'"
Murphy is the front-runner in a six-person Democratic primary set for June 6. His leading opponents, Assemblyman John Wisniewski and Jim Johnson, an official in the administration of former President Bill Clinton and a former federal prosecutor, criticized Trump over immigration and the environment but saved their harshest attacks for Murphy.
Ahead of the June 13 Virginia primary, Northam has tried to shed his image as the genteel pediatric neurologist who calmly presides over the languid state Senate.
"I know how to fight," Northam said. "I know how to win fights."
Perriello, a former diplomat, has launched salvos at Trump and special interest groups. He called the National Rifle Association, whose endorsement he once touted, a "nut job extremist" group.
Nancy Cade, a project manager from New Kent, Virginia, who says she has become newly politically active because of her dislike for Trump, said after a recent Richmond rally that she was learning toward the lieutenant governor because she thought Perriello wasn't "Virginia gentleman enough" to win.
"Northam is safe; he's palatable," she said.
But a few hours later, she attended a Perriello town hall where he promised a strong pushback against Trump. Cade said she was so impressed by Perriello's energy and poise that she said she planned to vote for him.
"He didn't give a politician's answers to anything," Cade said.
Eileen Davis, a nurse from Ashland, said she likes that Northam's seriousness draws a sharp contrast with Trump.
"People are realizing," Davis said, "that Kim Kardashian running for governor is not necessarily what they want."
Suderman reported from Richmond, Virginia. Contact Catalini at https://www.twitter.com/mikecatalini and Suderman at https://twitter.com/AlanSuderman .