Biden faces scrutiny for his age from other Democrats

Democratic lawmakers say they are feeling better about former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenThe Memo: Biden seeks revival in South Carolina Sanders makes the case against Biden ahead of SC primary Sanders holds 13-point lead in Fox News poll MORE’s standing as their party’s presidential front-runner after this week’s debates, despite what they describe as lingering questions about his age.

The 76-year-old’s shaky performance at a June debate after limited public appearances on the campaign trail raised doubts about his ability to compete with rivals 22 years younger, in the case of Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisThe Memo: Biden seeks revival in South Carolina Bloomberg campaign lobbied Yang for endorsement, possible VP offer: report Biden looks to shore up lead in SC MORE (D-Calif.), or more.

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“I was worried after the first debate he might have lost a step,” said one Democratic senator, who described the former vice president as having been caught flat-footed after Harris criticized his record on busing to integrate schools.

The lawmaker, who requested anonymity to comment frankly on the front-runner’s viability, said it wasn’t clear whether Biden wasn’t adequately prepared for the attacks in the first debate or whether he was having a tough time thinking on his feet.

That concern was largely alleviated after Biden punched back at his critics more effectively at the second debate in Detroit, even though the senator said Biden’s performance still wasn’t spectacular.

“I thought he was good enough,” the senator said.

A second Democratic senator expressed similar doubts about Biden after the first debate but felt somewhat relieved after he appeared more energetic sparring against Harris and Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerThe Memo: Biden seeks revival in South Carolina Bloomberg campaign lobbied Yang for endorsement, possible VP offer: report Warren calls for changes to presidential pardon power, pledges to create clemency board MORE (D-N.J.) on Wednesday.

“I had the same general reaction as everybody else. I thought he was good on Wednesday. I thought he was not so good in the first debate,” said the lawmaker, who commented on Biden’s debate performances on condition of anonymity.

“I haven’t decided who I’m supporting yet, but I want [Biden] to be strong regardless,” the senator added, explaining that colleagues gave Biden a pass on his weak effort in the first debate because he’s been out of politics since leaving office in 2017 and hasn’t campaigned since serving as Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaThe Memo: Biden seeks revival in South Carolina The Hill's Campaign Report: Sanders top target at CPAC Obama warns against 'unauthorized use' of his image to mislead voters in cease-and-desist letter MORE’s running mate in the 2012 election.

The senator said Biden’s ability to outbox his rivals on the debate stage and maintain a rigorous campaign schedule will be essential to dispelling doubts about whether he’s too old to serve effectively in the Oval Office.

“If he does that, I don’t think age will matter. If he doesn’t do that, age will matter,” the lawmaker said. “He’s got to be strong, and last night I think he was.”

Biden is hardly the only elder statesman contending for the White House. Two of his top competitors, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBloomberg: 'I'm going to stay right to the bitter end' of Democratic primary race The Memo: Biden seeks revival in South Carolina Sanders makes the case against Biden ahead of SC primary MORE (I-Vt.) and Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenBloomberg: 'I'm going to stay right to the bitter end' of Democratic primary race The Memo: Biden seeks revival in South Carolina Sanders holds 13-point lead in Fox News poll MORE (D-Mass.), are also in their 70s. Sanders is 77, while Warren is 70. President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Memo: Biden seeks revival in South Carolina Congress eyes billion to billion to combat coronavirus Sanders makes the case against Biden ahead of SC primary MORE is 73.

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But those three haven’t faced the same scrutiny over their readiness for political combat, perhaps because all three have been in the spotlight continuously since 2016.

Biden went toe-to-toe with Harris on the biggest issue in the Democratic primary, health care, challenging her new plan as something that will likely raise taxes on the middle class.

He also counterpunched effectively with Booker, who blasted Biden’s role in crafting the 1994 crime bill, which critics said contributed to the mass incarceration of African American men for nonviolent drug offenses.

Even so, Biden still had moments of apparent confusion in the second debate, such as when he asked potential supporters in his closing statement to “go to Joe 30330 and help me in this fight,” flubbing what was supposed to be an appeal to have people text his campaign.  

Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinDemocrats introduce bill to reverse Trump's shift of military money toward wall Overnight Energy: EPA to regulate 'forever chemicals' in drinking water | Trump budget calls for slashing funds for climate science centers | House Dems urge banks not to fund drilling in Arctic refuge Democratic senators criticize plan that could expand Arctic oil and gas development MORE (D-Ill.), one of Obama’s earliest Senate backers in the 2008 Democratic primary, said Biden was too courteous when his rivals attacked him in the first debate.  

“There were some moments when he was trying to be the kind, cordial and caring guy he is, and he was getting slapped around pretty hard,” Durbin said of the first debate. “I think he’s going to have to develop a new technique if he’s going to have to play defense like that.”

Like his colleagues, Durbin said Biden was better in the second debate.

“I think [there was] more detail in his answers,” he said.

On Wednesday, Biden seemed ready for Booker’s criticism of his criminal justice record. He immediately challenged his younger opponent’s record as mayor of Newark, pointing out that courts raised concerns over the city’s policing techniques and that the Justice Department warned the city to tone down its tactics.

Biden had the relevant rebuttal points at the ready, telling Booker bluntly, “You had 75 percent of those stops reviewed as illegal. You found yourself in a situation where three times as many African American kids were caught up in that chain.”

Sen. Chris CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsDemocratic senators ask DOJ watchdog to expand Giuliani probe Graham warned Pentagon chief about consequences of Africa policy: report Democrats fear rule of law crumbling under Trump MORE (D-Del.), one of Biden’s top surrogates in the Senate, touted his friend’s comeback in the second debate.

He told ABC News that Biden was “surprised” by the attacks that appeared to catch him off guard in the first debate.

“In Miami, he was surprised by the way a number of candidates who he viewed as friends came at him in very personal ways,” Coons said, adding that Biden showed in Detroit that “if there are folks that are going to try to mischaracterize his record or miscast his views and his values, that he’ll set the record straight.”

Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and former senior Senate aide, said Biden allayed concerns by stepping up his game in the second dame.

Manley said after the first debate, there were questions about whether he's "still got what it takes."

“He spent years debating on the Senate floor, and he’s very good at it, but the question is whether he’s still got the ability to think on his feet,” he said. “For me and the people I talk to, that’s what it probably boils down to.”

After the first debate, Manley said there were questions about “if he’s the right person to take on Donald Trump, given his aw-shucks mannerism sometimes and his earnestness.”

In the second debate, “he was tighter, he was tougher and he showed an ability to push back against the comments made by his opponents,” Manley said.

Durbin noted that Biden had a tougher challenge in the first debate because he was the top target of his rivals’ attacks. In Wednesday night’s debate, the hostile fire was spread more evenly between Biden and Harris, who climbed in the polls after torching Biden in the first debate.

“Joe has the disadvantage of being the target. He’s the leading candidate, so he’s the target. Kamala Harris realized that her success in the first debate made her a secondary target,” he said, adding that Biden “is going to take a lot more incoming than most.”