The Memo: Biden's rivals search for right mode of attack

The Memo: Biden's rivals search for right mode of attack
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Democratic rivals to former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenHow 'Buy American', other pro-US policies can help advocates pass ambitious climate policies Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Raytheon Technologies — Biden backtracks on Taiwan Photos of the Week: Manchin protestor, Paris Hilton and a mirror room MORE need to find a way to get ahead of him — but the route is far from clear.

Biden remains atop public opinion polls despite several gaffes and indifferent debate performances.

Candidates who have attacked him vigorously, notably Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisKamala Harris engages with heckler during New York speech Biden's safe-space CNN town hall attracts small audience, as poll numbers plummet I voted for Trump in 2020 — he proved to be the ultimate RINO in 2021 MORE (D-Calif.) and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, have suffered a backlash.

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Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersOvernight Health Care — Presented by Carequest — Study finds Pfizer vaccine almost 91 percent effective for 5 to 11 year olds The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Uber - Manchin, Sanders in budget feud; Biden still upbeat Democratic frustration with Sinema rises MORE (I-Vt.) has focused on policy differences with the former vice president, advocating for his own more-sweeping approach over Biden’s incrementalism on several topics, particularly “Medicare for All.”

But the challenger who has made the most headway against Biden, Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenSinema's office outlines opposition to tax rate hikes The CFPB's data overreach hurts the businesses it claims to help Runaway higher ed spending gains little except endless student debt MORE (D-Mass.), has largely avoided direct attacks on him, preferring instead to remain above the fray.

Warren stuck to that line in a Tuesday interview with Stephen ColbertStephen Tyrone ColbertFox's Bret Baier: Jan. 6 was a 'dark day' for US 'similar to what we saw in 1876' Fox's Gutfeld mocks late night hosts for planned 'climate night' Stephen Colbert, Comedy Central unveil two new animated political satires MORE of CBS’s “The Late Show.”

Colbert asked Warren if she was taking a “veiled shot” at Biden with a line in her stump speech about why Democrats can’t “choose a candidate we don’t believe in just because we’re too scared to do anything else.”

Warren sidestepped and shifted the focus to President TrumpDonald TrumpHillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — Twitter's algorithm boosts right-leaning content, internal study finds Ohio Democrat calls Vance an 'ass----' over Baldwin tweet Matt Taibbi says Trump's rhetoric caused public perception of US intelligence services to shift MORE.

“No, the way I see this is, these really are scary times. It’s scary times because Donald Trump is truly a terrible president. Not just bad, terrible,” she said.

Democratic strategists across the party’s ideological spectrum acknowledge that taking on Biden will require some deft maneuvering.

On one hand, there is a sincere belief, especially among progressives, that the former vice president is too conciliatory and moderate in his worldview, and that he may lack the vigor to take Trump on effectively.

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On the other hand, Biden is well-liked among Democratic voters, who revere him both for his loyalty to former President Obama and for the personal tragedies he has endured.

That makes an attack like the one mounted by Castro at the most recent debate in Houston problematic.

Castro asserted that Biden was misremembering something he had said just minutes earlier, a move that was widely perceived as a crude jab at Biden’s age and mental acuity.

The former vice president is 76.

“People are more likely to see an attack as quote-unquote ‘mean’ if it is against someone they like and who they think is a decent person,” said Karen Finney, who was senior spokeswoman for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonI voted for Trump in 2020 — he proved to be the ultimate RINO in 2021 Neera Tanden tapped as White House staff secretary Meghan McCain: 'SNL' parodies made me feel like 'laughing stock of the country' MORE in 2016 but is unaffiliated with any candidate this cycle.

Finney added that the personal regard for Biden among Democratic voters makes it all the more important for his rivals to fuse any attack with a positive case for their own candidacy.

“I don’t think tearing down Biden is going to be enough if you can’t make the case of, ‘Here is why I am the better person.’ And that’s why I think there was a little bit of backlash on Castro,” she said.

Harris, who went after Biden in the first debate for his warm words about past segregationist senators as well as his opposition to federally mandated school busing, provides a more complicated case study.

Harris’s attack dominated that debate, in Miami in late June, and the media coverage that followed it. She moved up in the polls, but it proved to be a sugar high that dissipated as suddenly as it arrived.

Whether voters ultimately recoiled at the attack on Biden, or whether Harris has failed more broadly to persuade voters of the merits of her candidacy, is unclear.

Democratic strategist Michael Trujillo said Harris's attack on Biden was powerful, even if it lacked effective follow-up.

"The approach Sen. Harris took was best," Trujillo said. "And they got their rocket fuel. They just didn't realize they had to launch the rocket. When it comes to Biden, Sen. Harris showed the playbook. You just need an Act 2 to go with your Act 1.”

Others argue that it is important for other candidates — especially progressive such as Sanders and Warren — to be clear about their differences with Biden, on issues ranging from health care to bankruptcy laws.

In progressive quarters, there is an impatience with the media’s tendency to categorize every expression of difference as an “attack” — wording they say unfairly equates something like Sanders’s advocacy of Medicare for All with Castro’s insinuation that Biden’s mental faculties are slipping.

“I’ve always been befuddled with this critique where you can’t criticize people’s positions because that is considered to be ‘attacking,’ ” said Jonathan Tasini, a Democratic strategist who supports Sanders.

“How else do you give a reason for people to vote for you as opposed to your opponent if you don’t draw contrasts? I think it is very different to raise the Iraq War, health care or taxes, versus doing personal attacks.”

Tasini added that, in his mind, Biden’s 2002 vote to give then-President George W. Bush authorization to go to war in Iraq remained “disqualifying” even 17 years later.

A major Democratic donor who declined to be identified argued Biden's opponents haven’t yet figured out the right note to strike when they challenge him.

“Debate him on policy. He has a long record. Debate him on Medicare, gun control, the Green New Deal, any of the above,” the donor said. “But any time you get personal, it looks tacky. There's no place for that.”

As the campaign heats up, virtually everyone expects attacks among the candidates to become fiercer.

“Biden’s rivals are in a difficult position,” said Rebecca Katz, a progressive strategist.

“On one hand, he’s a flawed candidate with some unanswered questions about his past — but whoever goes after Biden is likely going to end up doing as much damage to their own standing as to Biden’s."

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.

Amie Parnes contributed reporting.