Front-runner Biden faces skepticism in Iowa

Aaron Schwartz

BOONE, Iowa — Former Vice President Joe Biden plans to mount an ambitious on-the-ground team in the months before Iowa caucusgoers choose a candidate, even as some skeptical Democratic activists raise questions over his centrist policies and pledge to return to an earlier age of civility.

Though Biden leads in public polls in Iowa, he is a most precarious front-runner. He is universally well-known among Democrats who will attend February’s caucuses, but his support has fallen by one-third in a benchmark survey, suggesting voters are looking elsewhere among the crowded field of White House hopefuls.

It is rare, in a crowded field of candidates, that a top contender whose support slips is able to win back voters suddenly enamored of someone else.

{mosads}The challenge facing Biden was evident in Boone, where Biden’s wife Jill came to woo Democratic activists in sweltering heat Saturday just a mile from the birthplace of a former first lady Mamie Eisenhower. She reminded Iowa Democrats about the friends her husband has made over the years.

Those friends were among the hundreds who urged the former vice president to try to win the White House one more time, Jill Biden said.

“They missed his statesmanship and the kind of leader he is,” she said. “I believe America, and Americans, are kind and generous and helpful. And that’s the America that Joe Biden is fighting for.”

After her speech, Jill Biden made a point to say hello to campaign staffers working for other presidential candidates, most of whom had been baking in the unforgiving heat for three hours.

“Are you wearing sunscreen?” she asked. “See, that’s the mother in me coming out.”

Biden’s campaign plans to overwhelm his rivals, fueled by what is expected to be the strongest fundraising in a field of more than two dozen contenders. The campaign already has more than 50 staffers on the ground, with another wave of new hires coming next week.

{mossecondads}The hiring, senior campaign officials said, will not stop until after the February caucuses. They plan to have a captain in all 1,677 precincts in the state on caucus night, with backup volunteers assisting in larger precincts.

The goal is to replicate strategies employed by then-Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004 and then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) in 2008. Both of those campaigns identified new voters who were otherwise unlikely to caucus and ushered them to the polls. Both Kerry and Obama won Iowa.

Biden campaign volunteers in Chicago are already collecting data by texting unlikely voters. That information then goes to field organizers who will follow up on the ground. Biden’s initial swing through Iowa helped the campaign engage what it said was 350 volunteers.

But Biden’s campaign table was just one of a baker’s dozen present on Saturday, a reflection that the huge field of contenders sees no benefit in ceding ground to the candidate who leads the polls.

Voters in four cities this past weekend alternately said they were concerned that Biden’s pledge to return the country to an earlier age of political gentility is naive; that his policy positions are insufficiently progressive for a party moving determinately to the left; and that he has been absent from a state where personal interaction with caucusgoers is key to building support.

“I really like Biden, but I just think his time is past. I don’t think his voice is right for the future of the Democratic Party,” said Maggie Hibbs, an attorney who is not impressed by the more liberal wing of the party who attended a meet-and-greet with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) in West Des Moines on Friday.

Ever-present in many voters’ minds is Biden’s habit of misspeaking, and using language that reflects the age in which he became a national figure.

“I really have a problem with the old-fashioned chauvinistic attitude that he evinces,” said Paula Smith, an associate dean at Grinnell College.

The common theme among the main complaints with Biden, 76, is that he reflects the past, rather than the future.

“We can’t go back to 2008,” Hibbs said.

“He’s the old guard,” Smith said.

“We’re tired of old white men,” added Dianna Townsend, a social worker who celebrated her 60th birthday by watching the second Democratic debate with several friends at a brewery in Grinnell.

Julia Krieger, a Biden spokeswoman, responded to those remarks by telling The Hill that Biden is “growing a robust, grassroots campaign focused on engaging with voters in every precinct across Iowa.”

“That effort builds on the enthusiasm Vice President and Dr. Biden have seen directly from Iowans in their visits across the state and will continue to expand in the months ahead,” Krieger added.

Even voters who say Biden is their first choice at the moment indicate they are also concerned by his gaffes.

“His policies are probably good, but he has a habit of sticking his foot in his mouth. And I’m worried about that,” said Mike Schaeffer, a software developer in Grinnell.

An Iowa survey in early June conducted for the Des Moines Register and CNN by the respected pollster Ann Selzer showed Biden leading with 24 percent of the vote, ahead of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg all clumped together in a battle for second.

But Biden’s lead has shrunk substantially compared to several months ago. When Selzer conducted her first caucus poll in December, before almost every candidate had announced, Biden led with 32 percent of the vote, well ahead of Sanders.

He and Sanders are the only two candidates with nearly universal name recognition in the state. Seldom does a candidate who is so recognizable have an opportunity to win back the support he or she has lost.

And while Biden has a large number of supporters in Iowa, even they acknowledge his age and their interest in turning toward a new generation of leaders.

“I want to see somebody who can start from day one, with the right person behind them,” said Linda Gomez, a retiree in Ogden who cheered Jill Biden on. “Joe Biden, to me, is a comforting beginning to a new political everything.”

Some Democratic activists say they want to see more of Biden — and other candidates like Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) who are also seen as absent in the state. Biden has made only one campaign swing through Iowa since launching his campaign in late April.

By contrast, Biden visited Iowa six times over 17 days in 2006, before he announced his second bid for president in 2007. In the two months after formally launching that bid, Biden visited Iowa twice, for a total of five days, according to Democracy In Action, a nonpartisan website that tracked the candidates.

Some of Biden’s rivals have spent several weeks in Iowa already. Fourteen candidates have spent at least two weeks in Iowa, including Warren, Sanders and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.).

This week, both Joe and Jill Biden will appear at four events over two days, including a July Fourth parade in Independence and community events in Waterloo, Marshalltown and Des Moines. They are scheduled to return 10 days later for another multiday swing.

There are still seven months before Iowans meet to caucus in February, but as voters tune in over what is likely to be a frenetic summer of campaigning, Biden appears increasingly besieged. Even his greatest strength — his work as Obama’s steadfast and loyal vice president — seems to be losing its effectiveness.

“He’s beating a dead horse. We know what Obama did,” Townsend said.

Tags 2020 Democratic primary Barack Obama Bernie Sanders Boone caucuses Cory Booker Des Moines Elizabeth Warren Grinnell Iowa Jay Inslee Joe Biden John Kerry Pete Buttigieg presidential candidates voters
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