Team Biden projects confidence post-debate

Joe BidenJoe BidenSanders joins Biden atop 2020 Democratic field: poll The Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clashes, concessions Trump says impeachment lawyers were 'really good' MORE’s team is breathing a sigh of relief, believing the former vice president held his ground amid an onslaught of attacks from a half-dozen rivals seeking to cut him down at the Democratic presidential debates in Detroit this week.

To be sure, Biden had several shaky moments, and the ferocious attacks against the 76-year-old’s record on civil rights, immigration and health care portends the fights ahead. Biden’s rivals view him as a rickety front-runner who will at some point collapse under pressure.


But that hasn’t happened yet, and Team Biden feels the former vice president weathered a major test this week, steadying his candidacy after a poor first debate performance raised questions about whether he could rise to the challenge.

Biden is dominating the field with older voters and black Democrats, two constituencies critical to the primary and general election.

The big field behind Biden is splitting up support, and a single challenger has yet to break out, leaving Team Biden feeling, if not comfortable, content at this stage of the race.

“They think they had a really good night,” one top Democratic donor said of Biden’s senior aides. “Biden did what he needed to. He took a lot of blows and he punched back.”

Biden toured Detroit for several campaign events and spoke to reporters in the street on Thursday, projecting confidence and expressing surprise at what he characterized as attacks on President Obama’s record.

Biden has tied himself closely to Obama, and the media appearance on Friday seemed designed to remind voters once again of that link while putting some opponents on defense.

He predicted that he’d trounce President TrumpDonald John TrumpRouhani says Iran will never seek nuclear weapons Trump downplays seriousness of injuries in Iran attack after US soldiers treated for concussions Trump says Bloomberg is 'wasting his money' on 2020 campaign MORE in key battleground states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

“This is a marathon and I feel good,” Biden said. “I think we passed the quarter mark and I feel good.”

Biden’s ease in public on Thursday was in contrast to his occasional struggles on the debate stage in getting his sentences out.

“His age betrayed him last night,” said Brad Bannon, a Democratic strategist.

Biden’s backers acknowledge that his performance was choppy at times, but they say his fumbling — such as an awkward closing remark in which he gave the wrong numbers for supporters to text — were driven more by his aides seeking to keep him tightly scripted.

Allies say that Biden, even if he’s prone to gaffes during moments of loquaciousness, is far more resonant when he’s speaking from the heart.

“You could tell that every stuttering moment or flubbed line came when he was thinking about the canned lines one of his advisers fed him,” said one Democratic strategist who supports Biden. “The version of Biden that wins and becomes the nominee is the one who shoots from the hip.”

Supporters noted that some of his best moments from Wednesday’s debate came when he reacted instinctively, pointing to his dismissal of Bill de BlasioBill de BlasioThe Hill's Morning Report - Impeachment trial a week away; debate night Trump mocks Booker over suspended presidential campaign Thousands take to New York streets in solidarity after anti-Semitic attacks MORE’s future influence in the Democratic Party after the New York City mayor spent a large portion of the night attacking him.

“We hope you’re a part of it,” Biden said.

Biden’s allies are taking comfort in his polling strength, which rebounded after a modest dip following the first debates. They believe nothing happened over the course of the two nights in Detroit to fundamentally alter the shape of the race, and that if anything, Biden might be in line for a bump.

A longtime Biden aide declared that “nothing changes” after the debate. “Nothing.” 

Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerPatrick backs reparations in unveiling 'Equity Agenda for Black Americans' Booker ahead of Trump impeachment trial: 'History has its eyes on us' Sunday shows preview: Lawmakers gear up for Senate impeachment trial MORE (D-N.J.) landed the most blows against Biden, blaming him for being the architect of racist institutional systems he said had held back black people. But Booker is polling in the low single digits, and it will take a surprising surge of support to propel him into the top tier.

Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisRep. Bobby Rush endorses Bloomberg's White House bid Actor Michael Douglas endorses Bloomberg for president Democrats: McConnell impeachment trial rules a 'cover-up,' 'national disgrace' MORE (D-Calif.) has deflated some since catapulting into contention, and she may have had the worst debate performance of all the top contenders.

The biggest challenge for Biden right now may be coming from the left, as Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenSanders joins Biden atop 2020 Democratic field: poll The Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clashes, concessions Hillary Clinton tears open wound with her attack on Sanders MORE (D-Mass.) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders joins Biden atop 2020 Democratic field: poll The Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clashes, concessions Trump on Clinton's Sanders comments: 'She's the one that people don't like' MORE (I-Vt.) swatted away a fierce round of attacks from their centrist rivals on a separate debate stage Tuesday night.

Liberals smell blood in the water with Biden and are eager to see one of their own take him down.

“Joe Biden is failing and his inability to take responsibility for his past actions puts him out of step with where the party is today,” said Neil Sroka, a strategist for the progressive group Democracy for America. “Hands down, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren won the debate series in Detroit. Their growth and strength of support is more the story for me than the degree to which Biden’s is hanging on to his status as a weakened front-runner.”

Several Democrats reached by The Hill mentioned Warren as a real potential threat to him down the stretch.

And there are some fears among Biden’s supporters that the sustained attacks against him will at some point wear him down.

But there are no signs yet that anyone is making a serious run at Biden. It is hard to see a 3-way race between Biden, Warren and Sanders if liberals are splitting their support, as they are now. Those dynamics have helped Biden maintain a healthy lead over the field and weather the rocky days in between the first two debates.

There was relief among Biden’s supporters that the centrist candidates defended him and his policies, and hope that when some of those candidates drop out, they’ll become effective surrogates for the Biden campaign.

“[Biden] didn't put everyone else out of the game, but he steadied the ship after the first debate,” said Democratic strategist Eddie Vale. “Shows he was ready to fight and mix it up. So I think it remains to be seen what that translates into the polls but he definitely steadied himself and now needs to keep having good performances out on the trail and in his interviews."