Teflon Joe? Biden brushes off attacks

One month into his presidential run, former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenThe media have fallen out of love with Bernie, but have voters? Top Zelensky aide refutes Sondland testimony The great AI debate: What candidates are (finally) saying about artificial intelligence MORE is topping national polls while showing a Teflon-like quality to survive criticism lobbed against him. 

Biden has a 17-point edge in the RealClearPolitics average of national polls. While his lead has actually fallen a bit since it spiked after his entry into the race on April 25, it remains healthy and steady. 

He also leads in all of the early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada and is clobbering rivals in South Carolina. 

It is very early in the presidential primary, meaning there is plenty of time for Biden to falter.

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But people closely following the race are expressing a mixture of surprise and respect at Biden’s first month in the race.

They say they believe Biden’s strength reflects the generally positive feelings many Democrats hold for him and former President Obama, along with the argument at the center of Biden’s campaign so far — that he is the Democrat with the best chance to defeat Trump. 

“I think this month has proven that it’s not just name recognition,” said one longtime Biden ally and friend. “People just like Joe Biden. And Democrats right now really want to beat President TrumpDonald John TrumpSanders urges impeachment trial 'quickly' in the Senate US sending 20,000 troops to Europe for largest exercises since Cold War Barr criticizes FBI, says it's possible agents acted in 'bad faith' in Trump probe MORE, and he is uniquely qualified for this moment.” 

A ton of criticism and scrutiny preceded Biden’s entry to the race.

Strategists questioned whether he was liberal enough to win a Democratic primary given the party’s leftward tilt. They pointed to his past support for the Iraq War, a crime bill blamed for mass incarceration and banking legislation that helped financial interests in his home state. 

So far, the criticisms haven’t put a huge dent in the former vice president.

“Quite frankly, I’m surprised more of this stuff hasn’t gotten traction,” said Democratic strategist Jim Manley, who has known Biden since his time as a Senate aide. “And I’m surprised by how well he’s doing in general.” 

The former vice president has also been hit for overly familiar contact with women and for his handling of the Anita HillAnita Faye HillClarence Thomas blasts his Biden-led confirmation hearings: 'The idea was to get rid of me' Five landmark moments of testimony to Congress Christine Blasey Ford makes rare public appearance to accept empowerment award MORE and Clarence ThomasClarence ThomasBudowsky: Chief Justice Roberts can rescue democracy Justices appear cautious of expanding gun rights in NY case Ginsburg health scare raises prospect of election year Supreme Court battle MORE hearings. But it doesn’t seem to be hurting him. 

One strategist who worked on the Obama campaign but is currently unaffiliated with any of the presidential campaigns said the controversy lowered expectations for the success of the campaign. 

“Those seeking to keep him out of the race made him stronger by painting him as a hapless sexual predator who wouldn’t be able to raise money,” the strategist said. “So when he came out on stage and didn’t put his foot in his mouth in the first 30 seconds, didn’t grope someone on day one ... he not only cleared the extraordinarily low bar set for him but now looks like a juggernaut.”

Manley and other Democrats say Biden’s success reflects a cocktail of reasons, primarily the current chaos in the Trump administration and his time as Obama’s vice president. 

“With all due respect to the vice president, a lot of people saw him at Obama’s side for eight years, and he’s got a reservoir of support because of that,” Manley said.  

Biden is also probably helped by the large field he’s running in, which has divided supporters of other Democrats into a number of camps. It is a point Biden would highlight on calls with donors and other potential supporters of the campaign: With such a crowded field, no one would get to 50 percent. 

This week, a Morning Consult poll showed that Biden is the second choice of every opponent’s supporters with the exception of Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenThe media have fallen out of love with Bernie, but have voters? Buttigieg surrogate on candidate's past consulting work: 'I don't think it matters' Steyer rolls out 5B plan to invest in historically black colleges MORE (D-Mass.).

The survey was an important metric for the Biden campaign and its allies.

“You talk to many operatives and activists who may be supporting other candidates, and they still have positive feelings about the vice president,” said David Wade, a Democratic strategist who served as a spokesman to Biden after he was selected to be Obama’s running mate.

Wade said structurally the Iowa caucus system in particular rewards candidates who are strong second choices because in a crowded field with two dozen candidates, “a whole crop of candidates won’t make it past the first cut and their supporters will find somewhere else to go.” 

Wade, who also served as a senior aide to former Democratic nominee John KerryJohn Forbes KerryThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - A crucial week on impeachment Biden rallies with John Kerry in early primary states Booker on Harris dropping out: 'Iowa voters should have the right to choose' MORE in 2004, said the process “helped propel both Kerry and John Edwards out of Iowa.” 

“But more than any single state, in a race where even the most hardcore activists are laser-focused on defeating Donald Trump, being broadly acceptable to all the different lanes that make up the progressive superhighway really matters,” Wade added. “It doesn’t mean there won’t be tough stretches. Every campaign will have its ups and downs, but it means you’re going to be durable and resilient.”

Biden aides and allies acknowledge their candidate is happy with his front-runner status.

“I think we’re all a little surprised by how well he’s done, but it confirms to us that what we knew all along was true. He is the best candidate,” one ally acknowledged. 

But they know treacherous roads lie ahead.

In the coming weeks, Biden plans to take some time to prepare for the first debate in order to help combat any fire he may take on stage from opponents seeking to poke holes in his record. 

Rivals have sought to poke at Biden’s electability edge.

Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegThe media have fallen out of love with Bernie, but have voters? Tulsi Gabbard reacts to Afghanistan report, calls out Pete Buttigieg's McKinsey work Buttigieg surrogate on candidate's past consulting work: 'I don't think it matters' MORE, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., this week said you “earn the nomination by winning it.”

“Nobody’s earned the nomination in 2019,” Buttigieg told The Washington Post. 

Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisThe media have fallen out of love with Bernie, but have voters? Krystal Ball: Media turns on Buttigieg, will this end him? Senate Democrats demand Trump fire Stephen Miller MORE (D-Calif.) also sought to pour water on the electability argument. 

“I think that Joe Biden would be a great running mate,” Harris told reporters during a stop in New Hampshire earlier this month. “As vice president, he’s proven that he knows how to do the job.”  

Biden allies say such criticisms are a sign of what’s to come. But they don’t sound worried. 

“You have a man in the Oval Office who is horrible for our country, and people want him out, and they think Biden is the one to do that,” one ally said.

“As far as the criticism goes, they’re just not buying it,” the ally said of the attacks on Biden.