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 BidenTrump hits Fox News's Chris Wallace over Ukraine coverage Schiff: Whistleblower testimony might not be necessary Trump warns Democrats will lose House seats over impeachment 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 Devi HarrisRepublicans wrestle with impeachment strategy Klobuchar takes shots at health and education plans supported by Sanders and Warren Kamala Harris to Trump Jr.: 'You wouldn't know a joke if one raised you' MORE (D-Calif.) and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, have suffered a backlash.

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders wishes Ocasio-Cortez happy birthday Video of fake Trump shooting members of media shown at his Miami resort: report Sanders can gain ground by zeroing in on corruption 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 Ann WarrenSanders can gain ground by zeroing in on corruption Biden praises Buttigieg for criticizing GOP attacks: 'That's a good man' Warren enters crucial debate with big momentum 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 ColbertSusan Rice calls Trump decision to pull troops from Syria 'batshit crazy' Michelle Obama to release companion book to 'Becoming' Hillary and Chelsea Clinton propel Colbert's 'Late Show' to record high Monday rating 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 John TrumpWHCA calls on Trump to denounce video depicting him shooting media outlets Video of fake Trump shooting members of media shown at his Miami resort: report Trump hits Fox News's Chris Wallace over Ukraine coverage 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.

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 ClintonVideo of fake Trump shooting members of media shown at his Miami resort: report Ronan Farrow exposes how the media protect the powerful Kamala Harris to Trump Jr.: 'You wouldn't know a joke if one raised you' 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.