Editor's Note: (Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. Follow her on Twitter @fridaghitis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.)
(CNN) Everyone knew that Sen. Kamala Harris was a frontrunner to get the nod as Joe Biden's running mate; everyone, it seems, except President Donald Trump and his brain trust of loyalists and paid staffers.
How could they have been this unprepared?
Harris had spent months at or near the lead in just about every analysis of who made the most sense as a VP choice for former vice president Joe Biden. That's why you would have expected Trump and his campaign to roll out a carefully-crafted reaction the moment Biden made the announcement.
You would have been wrong.
The news has thrown Trump visibly off balance, and sent his campaign flailing just as badly. Even his chorus of cheerleaders at Fox News is having trouble deciding what to make of Harris -- further evidence of what a smart decision Biden made.
At the White House podium shortly after Biden's Tuesday announcement, the President looked downright perplexed. How could Biden choose someone who wasn't nice to him during the primary debates?
Trump has used that sophisticated criterion -- who's nice to him -- as justification for praising some of the world's worst dictators. Harris, Trump said, is "nasty." He described her as "the meanest, the most horrible, most disrespectful of anybody in the U.S. Senate."
The Trump campaign lifted that stirring quote, verbatim, and sent it out in a fundraising appeal. But in case the prospect of having a mean and disrespectful vice president wasn't persuasive, the campaign held a conference call with reporters, seeking to cast an ominous image of the newly-elevated Harris.
Instead, all the campaigned did was show its own dizzying confusion.
Trump campaign adviser Katrina Pierson unwittingly described Harris as too tough on crime -- "She fought to keep inmates locked up in overcrowded prisons."
Pierson noted Harris' time as a prosecutor, echoing the misgivings of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, but undercutting the larger Trump 2020 message that Biden-Harris will let the country unravel in convulsions of anarchy and mayhem.
Another fundraising email warned that, "Joe Biden and Kamala Harris Would Destroy America." (How scary!)
On Fox News, network stars swirled in a fever dream of alarm. Sean Hannity described Harris as socialist-friendly, a "radical extremist," declaring the Democrats' 2020 team "extreme radical far-left out of the mainstream."
The labels are so removed from reality that they are accidentally hilarious. Biden has a decades'-long track record of centrist policies.
Anyone who thinks Harris is a radical should listen to Democratic progressives trying to reconcile themselves with the new reality: excited about the historic nature of Harris' candidacy, but underwhelmed, even disappointed with her politics.
On Wednesday, after Biden and Harris appeared together and she made a scathing speech about Trump's record, the President still appeared a bit disoriented about Biden's choice.
When a reporter asked him about Harris' withering rundown of his failures to control the pandemic, Trump accused her of being "very weak on facts," another dose of accidental irony from a president with a documented ledger of more than 20,000 lies.
But Trump and the campaign are gradually settling on a strategy. It's a tough challenge. They have to come up with something to focus voters' attention, and it can't be the economy or health care.
Here's the plan: Painting Biden as a wild-eyed radical just won't stick, so they will try to frighten voters into thinking that the affable Biden is a puppet of the scary left. Maybe Harris is the puppeteer, that's not completely clear yet.
Fox News' Jeanine Pirro has been stoking the conspiracy. "Who really picked this woman," she asked on Tuesday.
For his part, Trump is taking the racist road, perhaps expecting a majority of Americans to find that path inspiring. "The suburban housewife will be voting for me," he predicted on Twitter, explaining, "They want safety."
Under Biden, "low income housing would invade their neighborhood...with Corey [misspelled] Booker in charge!" The message was transparently, deliberately racist. It was also inadvertently, revealingly sexist.
Even his backer, Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn, didn't refer to "housewives" when she said Harris' choice has "completed the leftist takeover of the party and of their radical agenda," saying that "suburban women" want security more than anything. "Security moms," she said, won't like Harris because they want "Law and Order."
Security moms who want law and order might actually like Harris' record. But let's not muddle the Republican strategy with facts.
In short, the plan is to frighten voters and appeal to any latent racist fears. Since Biden is not a radical, the claim is that he's not really in charge; he's a Trojan Horse. And Harris -- she may seem too tough, too nasty, but she's not tough enough. Got that?
In fairness to the Trump team, Democrats have put them in a difficult position. But there is no reasonable excuse for why the Trump campaign was unprepared for the Harris announcement. The only explanation is incompetence, and Trump's inability to fathom anyone not holding a grudge.