US President Donald Trump stepped up his vilification of four liberal politicians as un-American at a raucous rally yesterday, underscoring that the attacks will form a key part of his strategy for winning re-election in 2020.
Despite criticism from Democrats that his comments about the four minority congresswomen are racist, Mr Trump went on an extended diatribe about the women, saying they were welcome to leave the country if they did not like his policies on issues such as immigration and defending Israel.
"So these Congresswomen, their comments are helping to fuel the rise of a dangerous, militant hard left," the Republican president said to roars from the crowd in North Carolina, a state seen as key to his re-election.
Mr Trump tweeted over the weekend that the four progressive representatives, known as "the squad" - Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts - should "go back" where they came from, even though all are US citizens and three are US-born.
The aim, one source close to Mr Trump said, was to make Democrats look as far left as possible to moderate voters as he girds for a tough re-election battle in November 2020.
"He is trying to make them the face of the Democratic Party as we move closer into the 2020 cycle and he's trying to highlight them as a fringe crowd as much as possible so it turns off your middle-of-the-road voters," the source said.
As Mr Trump recounted past comments by Ms Omar, who was born in Somalia and emigrated to the United States as a child, the crowd began chanting: "Send her back!"
"Tonight I have a suggestion for the hate-filled extremists who are constantly trying to tear our country down. They never have anything good to say. That's why I say: 'Hey, if they don't like it, let them leave. Let them leave,'" Mr Trump said.
He spent about a fifth of his freewheeling 90-minute-long speech criticising the four women, to enthusiastic crowd response.
👋🏽 I am where I belong, at the people's house and you’re just gonna have to deal! pic.twitter.com/W0OvDXGxQX— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) July 18, 2019
Former Vice President Joe Biden, the front-runner for the Democratic 2020 presidential nomination, weighed in against Mr Trump's remarks via Twitter.
"These members of Congress - children of immigrants, just like so many of us - are an example of exactly what makes America great," Mr Biden said on the social network.
Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney described the footage of last night's rally as "chilling".
This is chilling.... targeting individuals, fueling hatred based on race is not acceptable in political discourse... history tells us where this leads! https://t.co/UDgoeomml1— Simon Coveney (@simoncoveney) July 18, 2019
Mr Trump also derided Mr Biden in his remarks and skewered other Democrats vying to be the party's 2020 candidate.
He repeated his frequent reference to US Senator Elizabeth Warren as "Pocahontas," a dig about a controversy over her heritage that Ms Warren and Native American groups have complained as racist.
Mr Trump's Twitter attacks initially caused some heartburn for advisors who felt he had gone too far.
But two said he had since offered a contrasting view, that the political views of the four women were socialist, out of the mainstream and hateful to their home country, versus those of the president and his flag-waving rhetoric.
"If the American people have to choose between the squad and the president, then that's an easy decision," one advisor said.