The Memo: Dem race for White House takes on new shape

Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenThe Hill's Morning Report - In exclusive interview, Trump talks Biden, Iran, SCOTUS and reparations Biden to debate for first time as front-runner Rules for first Democratic primary debates announced MORE is the candidate to beat in the Democratic presidential primary.

Biden has had a stronger than expected launch to his campaign, opening up a wide lead in several opinion polls.

The scale of the “Biden Bump” is all the more surprising given that the former vice president had to navigate troubled waters in early April, before making his bid official, when several women said he had been inappropriately tactile with them in the past.

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To be sure, the 2020 contest is at a very early stage. The Iowa caucuses are nine months away, and there are many twists and turn to come.

But for now, Biden’s argument that he is the best candidate to defeat President TrumpDonald John TrumpNew EPA rule would expand Trump officials' powers to reject FOIA requests Democratic senator introduces bill to ban gun silencers Democrats: Ex-Commerce aide said Ross asked him to examine adding census citizenship question MORE is carrying the day.

Democrats of all stripes are desperate to deny Trump a second term.

“There is a freight train coming down the track and, if we don’t take drastic action to derail it, this country is going to change,” said Dick Harpootlian, a storied figure in South Carolina Democratic politics who is currently a state senator and was previously state party chairman.

Harpootlian is already in Biden’s corner. He held a fundraiser for the former vice president at his home on Saturday evening, where the candidate caused a media stir by referring to Trump as a "clown."

Harpootlian argued that progressive policy priorities are secondary to beating Trump.

“In this contest, there is only one issue — not 'Medicare for All,' not the Green New Deal. It’s who can beat Donald Trump. In my mind, there is only one person in this field who can clearly go toe-to-toe with Donald Trump, not just in the debates but in the campaign,” he said.

Biden skeptics insist that the former vice president’s early strength could prove illusory, given his capacity for gaffes and his indifferent performance in his two previous runs for the White House, in 1988 and 2008.

Others question whether his age and ideological moderation really fit with the mood of a party that has recently been energized by young progressives, most notably Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezLawmakers 'failed us' says ICE chief Pelosi, Democratic leaders seek to quell liberal revolt over border bill Bronx restaurants thank Ocasio-Cortez for her endorsements MORE (D-N.Y.). 

In the presidential field, almost all of Biden’s rivals are far less well-known than him. That could give those competitors a lot of room to grow — and to knock him off his pedestal.

Still, Biden’s strength out of the gate complicates the calculus for other candidates. Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill's Morning Report - In exclusive interview, Trump talks Biden, Iran, SCOTUS and reparations Biden to debate for first time as front-runner Rules for first Democratic primary debates announced MORE (I-Vt.) has shown a lot of fundraising strength and had been polling only fractionally behind Biden until the latter formally entered the race.

That is no longer the case. Among four polls released last week — from Quinnipiac University, CNN–SSRS, ABC News–Washington Post and Morning Consult — Sanders was more than 20 points adrift in two and 14 points behind in another. In only one was the Biden-Sanders gap in single figures. 

In the Qunnipiac poll, Sanders had fallen to third place, albeit only a statistically insignificant single point behind Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenAbigail Disney: 'We're creating a super-class' of rich people Is Big Tech biased? The Hill's Morning Report - In exclusive interview, Trump talks Biden, Iran, SCOTUS and reparations MORE (D-Mass.).

“The dynamic has changed quite a bit,” said Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist who guided former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign. 

Prior to Biden’s entry into the race, “most of the field were trying to contrast themselves with Bernie Sanders,” Trippi said. “Now they are all trying to contrast off of [Biden], as is Trump. Biden is right at the center of attention — whether it is from Trump or from Bernie — and that all helps him.”

Trump has blasted Biden as “Sleepy Joe” and has derided his endorsement by a major union, the International Federation of Fire Fighters. 

But being attacked by Trump never did a Democrat any harm with liberal activists. Politico reported in recent days that some Trump advisers are uneasy with the president’s attacks on Biden, fearing their potential to backfire. 

Elsewhere in the Democratic field, another frequent Trump target — Warren — has been showing some signs of growth in the polls. She has impressed on the stump and at multicandidate events, such as a recent forum in Las Vegas organized by the Service Employees International Union and the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.

Anecdotal evidence from the early states also provides signs of hope for the Massachusetts senator.

“The person who seems to be getting a little more traction is Elizabeth Warren’s campaign,” said Bret Nilles, the chairman of the Democratic Party in Iowa’s Linn County, home to the state’s second-largest city, Cedar Rapids. “She’s had good events, people seem to like her a bit more.”

Sanders and Warren, however, are widely seen as competing for the same universe of left-wing voters. A serious battle between the two could ultimately help Biden, who stands unchallenged as the leading centrist in the race.

The crowded field could redound to his advantage in other ways, too. 

Anticipation around former Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s (D-Texas) bid has fallen flat so far, in part because his thunder has been stolen by South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegThe Hill's Morning Report - In exclusive interview, Trump talks Biden, Iran, SCOTUS and reparations Biden to debate for first time as front-runner Rules for first Democratic primary debates announced MORE (D), who has similar demographic appeal.

Party insiders are already looking further down the track at the primary calendar for other ways in which the sheer number of candidates could have an impact.

South Carolina, for example, is the first contest where black Democrats will cast a large share of the votes. 

One unaligned Palmetto State Democratic strategist, who asked for anonymity, said other candidates could benefit if both of the leading black candidates, Sens. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisThe Hill's Morning Report - In exclusive interview, Trump talks Biden, Iran, SCOTUS and reparations Biden to debate for first time as front-runner Rules for first Democratic primary debates announced MORE (D-Calif.) and Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerBiden to debate for first time as front-runner Rules for first Democratic primary debates announced Press: Democrats form circular firing squad MORE (D-N.J.), are still in the race at that point. 

“Having both of them on the ballot will split the African-American vote and will be a big opportunity for another candidate,” the strategist said.

Biden has significant black support, in part because of his loyal service to — and evident personal affection for — former President Obama.

In the Quinnipiac University poll, for example, Biden had the support of 42 percent of nonwhite respondents, more than 30 points ahead of his nearest rival, Warren. Sanders, who struggled with nonwhite voters during his 2016 campaign, had only 7 percent support.

Virtually every Democratic source who spoke to The Hill underlined the fluidity of the race. Some cited, as a cautionary note, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden to debate for first time as front-runner Top Trump ally says potential Amash presidential bid could be problematic in Michigan Chaotic Trump transition leaks: Debates must tackle how Democrats will govern differently MORE’s polling dominance in the early stages of both the 2008 and 2016 primaries, which ended in her defeat by Obama and her being run uncomfortably close by Sanders, respectively.

Others, such as Kris Mueller, the chairwoman of the Merrimack County Democratic Party in New Hampshire, emphasized that the party was a “big tent” with various contenders bringing “something unique” and many having the capacity to catch fire.

Sean Bagniewski, the Democratic Party chairman in Iowa’s most populous county, Polk, cautioned that “it feels like everything has been jumbled” at present. He cited conversations with Democrats in the state who have not decided on their top five choices, much less a single candidate.

On-the-ground operations in caucus states such as Iowa are vital, and Bagniewski asserted that Warren’s campaign and — perhaps more surprisingly — Booker’s were “head and shoulders above everyone else” at this early stage.

For the moment, though, Biden is the one in the spotlight — and the rest of the field is fighting just to join him center stage.

“Trump always eats up a lot of attention,” said Trippi. “Biden is eating up a lot of attention. Right now, anybody who engages with Biden gets attention. How much room is there for the other 18 or 19 candidates not in the picture?”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.