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Joe Biden knows the upcoming Democratic debates matters more for him than anyone else in the crowded race, allies of the former vice president say. 

Biden is increasingly viewed as a weak front-runner after Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) tore into him on the second night of the first debates over his past opposition to federal busing. 

Since that debate last month, Biden has retained his lead in a number of polls, but the field is closing and doubts about the vice president are growing — even among those who have said they will vote for him. 

{mosads}“It’s important that we show he’s the legitimate front-runner and that it’s not just name ID,” said one longtime ally. “I think people want to be for Joe Biden. But they want him to be stronger.”

At next week’s debates, Biden will face off with Harris again. He’ll be looking to reassure supporters that he’s ready for prime time, while seeking to cement his argument that he’s the only one in the field that can beat President Trump. 

Simply put, “he needs to debate better,” said Philippe Reines, a longtime senior adviser to Hillary Clinton, who helped her prepare for her debates against Trump in the 2016 general election. “The most damaging thing to Biden that night was twofold. … He didn’t debate well and two, others did.”

“He wasn’t in the right mindset,” he added.

Biden once again is huddling with veteran Democratic advisers Anita Dunn and Ron Klain and other longtime aides on the upcoming debate. 

The former vice president came under criticism for seemingly being caught off guard last month by Harris’s decision to attack — perhaps because he did not think she would be the one to come after him. 

Next week, he’s aiming to do better. 

He wants to come across as stronger and more assertive; he kept referring to the clock in the last debate and even stopped himself from answering questions the last time. 

“I think he realizes he can’t do that again,” another ally who has spoken to him in recent weeks said. “The next debate is really, really important for him.” 

Biden’s competitors have sought to highlight his lengthy record in the Senate, pointing fingers at Biden for positions and legislation he once supported. 

Time and again, it has put the former vice president on the defensive, preventing him from discussing Trump and issues in the headlines. 

He’s sought to stop the bleeding in recent weeks, spending time to explain his record. 

On Tuesday, after getting pummeled by his opponents for his authorship of the 1994 crime bill, he unveiled a wide-ranging proposal that would tackle mass incarceration and reduce the “racial, gender and income-based disparities in the system.” 

The plan would eliminate the death penalty, get rid of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes and private prisons, and create a $20 billion grant program aimed at getting states to reduce incarceration. 

By putting out the proposal the week before the debates, Biden is aiming to go on offense on what is a prickly issue for him. 

The stumbles in the first debate were particularly devastating to Biden because they raised real questions about whether he is the best candidate to run against Trump. If Biden stumbles on the stage this early in the primary, how will he do against Trump next fall?

Reines said Biden “no longer corners the market” on people who think he’s the toughest one to take on Trump. 

But he also predicted that Biden will be more prepared next week. He said he’s undoubtedly preparing for a replay of the Harris question, even if it doesn’t come from the senator herself. 

An attack might also come from Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) — who was not on stage with Biden in the first debates but has criticized him publicly in recent days.

{mossecondads}Booker provided a preview of a possible line of attack on Tuesday after Biden put out his criminal justice plan: “Joe Biden had more than 40 years to get this right,” Booker said in a statement. “The proud architect of a failed system is not the right person to fix it.” 

Few would argue the debate is a critical moment for Biden if he hopes to retain his status as the presumed front-runner.

He’s been leading in part due to the strong support from African American voters, but he can’t count on them remaining loyal.

“Biden needs to come across as the congenial, experienced and prepared candidate his supporters think is key to beating Donald Trump,” said Basil Smikle, the former executive director to the New York State Democratic Party. “It’s an important debate because he’s largely ahead in the polls due to the support of black voters and any additional signs of vulnerability will continue to chip away at his lead.” 

Chris Lehane, a strategist who has served as a senior aide on several presidential campaigns, said a more aggressive Biden needs to take the stage. 

He said the former vice president “needs to be relentlessly on the offensive with a theory of the case as to why him and why now.” 

“To date, his most effective moment was the video he released when he announced, as it contained a powerful message about reconnecting to our democracy,” Lehane said. “Given the last few weeks, this message is as powerful as ever.  Democrats win when owning the economy or owning the ideal of America.”

Tags 2020 Democrats Biden campaign Cory Booker Democratic debates Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Joe Biden

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