Teflon Joe? Biden brushes off attacks

One month into his presidential run, former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenSome Sanders top allies have urged him to withdraw from 2020 race: report Sunday shows preview: As coronavirus spreads in the U.S., officials from each sector of public life weigh in Trump defends firing of intel watchdog, calling him a 'disgrace' 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 TrumpPelosi eyes end of April to bring a fourth coronavirus relief bill to the floor NBA to contribute 1 million surgical masks to NY essential workers Private equity firm with ties to Kushner asks Trump administration to relax rules on loan program: report 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 HillTrump sets up for bruising campaign against Biden Clarence Thomas breaks his silence in theaters nationwide Anita Hill to Iowa crowd: 'Statute of limitations' for Biden apology is 'up' MORE and Clarence ThomasClarence ThomasSupreme Court postpones April arguments Supreme Court rules Citgo responsible for 2004 oil spill Trump steps up intensity in battle with media 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 WarrenDemocrats seize on Trump's firing of intelligence community watchdog Biden says his administration could help grow 'bench' for Democrats Overnight Health Care: CDC recommends face coverings in public | Resistance to social distancing sparks new worries | Controversy over change of national stockpile definition | McConnell signals fourth coronavirus bill 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 KerryUS inaction is hurting the chance for peace in Libya Poll: More Republican voters think party is more united than Democratic voters Biden's pick for vice president doesn't matter much 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 ButtigiegPete ButtigiegButtigieg launches new PAC to aid down-ballot candidates HuffPost political reporter on why Bernie fell way behind Biden Economists fear slow pace of testing will prolong recession 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 HarrisEnlisting tech to fight coronavirus sparks surveillance fears Biden says his administration could help grow 'bench' for Democrats Is Texas learning to love ObamaCare? 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.