Is Biden the Democratic front-runner by default?

Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden evokes 1968, asks voters to imagine if Obama had been assassinated Biden blasts Trump's 'embarrassing' actions heading into G-7 summit Steyer calls on DNC to expand polling criteria for debates MORE is coming off his worst week on the campaign trail and has seen his lead shrink in Iowa amid new attacks from Democratic rivals hoping to close the gap with the race’s front-runner.

The rough patch, topped with a flip-flop on the Hyde Amendment that brought unwelcome comparisons to other Democratic candidates on the keystone issue of abortion rights, has brought new scrutiny to Biden and his campaign. 

The former vice president is facing questions about whether he is too much of a centrist for a party leaning left, and whether those supporting him in public opinion polls really hold any passion for his candidacy. 

“There are times when it feels like he’s the front-runner by default,” said one Democratic strategist, who pointed to the relatively small crowds at Biden campaign events. “That’s not how you win the White House.” 

Biden’s team has at times kept him out of the public spotlight, with the former vice president recently skipping events in California and Iowa that were attended by many other candidates in the 2020 field. 

The approach has reminded some observers of Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump takes aim at media after 'hereby' ordering US businesses out of China Trump knocks news of CNN hiring ex-FBI official McCabe Taylor Swift says Trump is 'gaslighting the American public' MORE’s campaign in 2016, which was criticized for being too cautious. 

“So far at least, it’s been a campaign of caution,” said the Democratic strategist, who is unaffiliated with any candidate. “You don’t win campaigns by being cautious. You win because you’re out there and you’re confident and you’re inspiring masses to believe in you. I want to see him do well, but I think he’s been struggling on that front.” 

CNN commentator Ana NavarroAna Violeta NavarroEl Paso orphan's family explains Trump photo with baby Ana Navarro lashes out at Rubio for calling outrage over Trump's 'go back' tweet 'self righteous' Is Biden the Democratic front-runner by default? MORE on Monday compared Biden’s campaign to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s effort in the 2016 GOP presidential primary, which was famously labeled as “low energy” by President TrumpDonald John TrumpDavid Axelrod after Ginsburg cancer treatment: Supreme Court vacancy could 'tear this country apart' EU says it will 'respond in kind' if US slaps tariffs on France Ginsburg again leaves Supreme Court with an uncertain future MORE

“I say this as someone who really likes Joe Biden,” Navarro said on the cable network. “Right now, he’s giving me Jeb Bush acid reflux. I want to see him pull this together.” 

Sources close to Biden acknowledge the last week didn’t go so well for his campaign. 

One Biden ally said the former vice president is well aware that he’ll need to more fully discuss his position on the Hyde Amendment, which prevents federal funds from being used for abortion, and more specifically why he had a change of heart on the issue. 

“I think it’s a legitimate question,” said the ally, who has spoken to him about the issue. “It’s a very fair question.” 

When Biden travels to Iowa on Tuesday, he is expected to reinforce his belief in a woman’s right to choose, according to those close to him. 

Democratic strategist Karen Finney, who worked on Clinton’s 2016 presidential bid, said while Biden is leading in the polls and is running a general election strategy, the campaign still has to “respect where the party is in order to win the nomination.”

“So hopefully his team is doing more self-research on issues like the Hyde Amendment, where there has been a significant shift in the party, so they can address whatever those issues may be on their terms rather than in real time in the midst of the campaign,” Finney said. 

Even before the headlines surrounding his shifting position on Hyde, Biden had seen the bounce from his campaign announcement start to fall. 

The Des Moines Register/Mediacom/CNN poll of Iowa voters released on Saturday found Biden with 24 percent support, compared to 16 percent for Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersHickenlooper day-old Senate bid faces pushback from progressives Steyer calls on DNC to expand polling criteria for debates Andrew Yang: News coverage of Trump a 'microcosm' of issues facing country MORE (I-Vt.), 15 percent for Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenSteyer calls on DNC to expand polling criteria for debates Gabbard hits DNC over poll criteria for debates The Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch MORE (D-Mass.) and 14 percent for South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegSteyer calls on DNC to expand polling criteria for debates The Hill's 12:30 Report: Stocks sink as Trump fights with Fed, China Gabbard hits DNC over poll criteria for debates MORE.

It’s a drop for Biden since March, when he won 27 percent support in the same poll.

Biden has the highest name identification of the two dozen candidates running for the Democratic nomination, and enjoys positive feelings from much of the party’s electorate because of his place on the Obama administration for eight years.

But there are persistent doubts about the strength of Biden’s support, and they were bolstered by the Iowa poll. 

Zac Petkanas, a Democratic strategist who also worked on Clinton’s 2016 campaign, said the latest poll underlined the fact that the race is anybody’s game — even if Biden is the clear front-runner. 

“Fundamentally, this race remains wide open,” Petkanas said. “Joe Biden started off with an enormous amount of support not just because he had name ID but because people in the Democratic Party like Joe Biden.” 

“However … as other candidates get their ideas out there and it allows voters to get to know them and their styles, there’s going to be fluctuation,” Petkanas continued. “Some candidates are going to rise and some candidates are going to fall. There are going to be surges and valleys as Democrats sort out the kind of candidate they want to take on Donald Trump.” 

Others point out that even after his worst week on the campaign trail so far, Biden retains a healthy lead. 

Democratic donor Robert Wolf said Biden is just where he needs to be in the race, “because when you look at electability versus President Trump, he does the best.” 

Electability has been the strength of Biden’s campaign so far, with polls suggesting many Democrats see him as having the best chance of anyone in the field to defeat Trump, particularly with the blue-collar voters in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan who abandoned Clinton and the Democratic Party in 2016. 

Wolf said Biden faces two big hurdles in the coming weeks: “How he does in the debates and the second-quarter financials.”  

Still, he added, “If someone said to me, ‘Joe Biden is polling tops in Iowa at 25 percent,’ I’d say that’s a really good showing.”

Petkanas put it this way: “For all the talk about Joe Biden having a bad week, he’s still in the lead.”