Joe Biden lost his fastball — can he get it back before South Carolina?

Joe Biden lost his fastball — can he get it back before South Carolina?
© Greg Nash

Never was it clearer than in the fog, snow and drizzle of this bellwether New England state that the bell is tolling for Joe BidenJoe BidenCuomo grilled by brother about running for president: 'No. no' Top Democratic super PACs team up to boost Biden The Hill's Campaign Report: Trump, Biden spar over coronavirus response MORE.

“Joe just lost his fastball,” said a long-time Democrat who cast his ballot here in the New Hampshire primary last Tuesday for President Donald Trump.

Having covered Biden’s first campaign in 1987, I can say Biden’s one-time political fastball floated in more like a changeup as he pitched for votes here in a winded effort to revive his campaign. His main opponents — Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersTop Democratic super PACs team up to boost Biden Poll: Biden leads Sanders by 22 points GE employees urge company to use laid-off workers to make ventilators MORE (I-Vt.), former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegReuters poll finds Sanders cutting Biden national lead to single digits Biden says he'll adopt plans from Sanders, Warren Buttigieg guest-hosts for Jimmy Kimmel: 'I've got nothing else going on' MORE and Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharHillicon Valley: FCC chief proposes 0M telehealth program | Twitter takes down posts promoting anti-malaria drugs for coronavirus| Whole Foods workers plan Tuesday strike Trump says election proposals in coronavirus stimulus bill would hurt Republican chances Biden tops Trump by 9 points in Fox News poll MORE (D-Minn.) — knocked it out of the park. Even Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenDemocratic senators ask Pompeo to provide coronavirus aid to Palestinian territories Seth Meyers returning to late-night TV with 'hybrid episodes' Biden tops Trump by 9 points in Fox News poll MORE (D-Mass.) — with only 9 percent and zero delegates — crossed home before him.

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The veteran U.S. senator and two-term vice president finished fifth, gaining just over 8 percent of the vote. It was a disappointing showing. Now, with the Democratic presidential race focused on Nevada and South Carolina, Biden has two final chances to show he still has his stuff.

The latest poll out of Nevada, which votes on Saturday, shows him in second place trailing Sanders by seven points. Biden and Sanders were virtually tied there before his flops in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Moreover, Biden’s lead in South Carolina, which votes one week after Nevada on Feb. 29, has shrunk from 23 points before voting began, to just seven points now. He was counting on strong black support in South Carolina to put him over the top there. But he needs a clear win or close second in Nevada to avoid the obituaries.

In Nevada, the first Western state to vote, Biden has a narrow chance to break into the win column. Nevada’s powerful Culinary Workers Union, whose membership is 42 percent Latino, clearly does not like Sanders and his plans for government takeover of health care.

“We believe people have to have choices. You can have your private insurance and you can have government insurance, too,” said Gioconda Arguello-Kline, secretary-treasurer of the Culinary Workers Union, in an interview Sunday on NPR.

Yet, in a setback for “lunch-bucket Joe,” long a friend of organized labor, the Culinary Workers chose not to endorse any candidate, saying members will choose the candidate they think best represents their interests and needs. Clearly, Biden’s poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire are causing them to hang back.

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Evidence that Biden might have “lost his fastball” was on display here in New Hampshire at a rally in the Alvirne High School gymnasium in Hudson just two days before people voted. Rather than fire up his crowd of 500-600 with a rah-rah speech that would bring them to their feet and propel them out the door raring to vote for him, Biden gave them instead what came off as a stream-of-conscience Lenny Bruce routine.

Using a hand-held microphone, Biden, wearing a blue sweater beneath his blue blazer, roamed the gym floor taking questions from the audience. He paused to reflect on, and choke up about, the brain cancer death of his son Beau and spotlight people in the crowd who experienced similar tragedies, struggled with children with fatal illnesses or suffered their own physical disabilities.

He angrily mused about children standing in line without warm coats and hats to get free food, a woman brutally beaten by her husband, students participating in duck-and-cover drills in case a shooter burst into their school, the opioid crisis and its victims, 22 veterans committing suicide every day, white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., and on and on.

 “What in God’s name is happening to us?” he angrily shouted out at one point.

Audience members, encouraged by Biden’s sympathetic ear, stood up and told about their own personal or family problems.

“God love you,” a compassionate Biden exclaimed.

A rare light moment in the session came when a spry 92-year-old World War II veteran rose to ask a question. An incredulous Biden questioned whether the man was really 92.

“Let me see your license,” Biden ordered.

“I don’t have any,” the man answered.

The audience roared and gave the vet an ovation.

The vet’s message to Biden: “You’ve got to beat Trump!”

Sensing that the session had dragged on too long, Biden’s handlers tried to get him to leave. They called out “One more question!” — multiple times — before he finally handed the mic to an aide.

The scene was a bit like the manager strolling to the mound to take his pitcher out after he lost his fastball.

The big question now is: Can the veteran Biden can reach back and find it again pitching in Nevada and South Carolina? If not, his career is over.

Richard Benedetto is a retired USA Today White House correspondent and columnist. He now teaches politics and journalism at The American University and in The Fund For American Studies program at George Mason University. As a reporter, he covered Joe Biden ‘s first run for president in 1987. Follow him on Twitter @benedettopress.