What Biden must do to keep his lead and win

What Biden must do to keep his lead and win
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Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden leads Trump by 36 points nationally among Latinos: poll GOP set to release controversial Biden report Can Donald Trump maintain new momentum until this November? MORE, to hold his commanding position in the presidential contest, must avoid three traps: Sitting on his lead, overcompensating or freelancing too much, and — most important — playing on Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden leads Trump by 36 points nationally among Latinos: poll Trump dismisses climate change role in fires, says Newsom needs to manage forest better Jimmy Kimmel hits Trump for rallies while hosting Emmy Awards MORE's terrain.

While many Democrats still hear 2016’s footsteps, Biden has more significant advantages than Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden leads Trump by 36 points nationally among Latinos: poll Democratic super PAC to hit Trump in battleground states over coronavirus deaths Battle lines drawn on precedent in Supreme Court fight MORE did. He is a less-polarizing figure — an easier vote for “Trump triers," that small group of voters who rolled the dice for something different but feel it didn't turn out as they hoped. His choice of Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisSocial Security and Medicare are on the ballot this November Harris honors Ginsburg, visits Supreme Court The Hill's Campaign Report: Trump and Biden vie for Minnesota | Early voting begins in four states | Blue state GOP governors back Susan Collins MORE as his running mate is expected to energize Democrats this fall.

Still, Biden needs to convey a positive message for a country facing enormous challenges, exercise discipline, and not get in a down-and-dirty brawl.

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Given that Democrats won the popular vote twice this century while losing the presidency, Biden’s camp has to calculate the Electoral College priorities, which are pretty simple: Keep all the states Clinton won last time and rebuild that blue wall — Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin — where Trump's upset victories (by a combined 77,544 votes) gave him the presidency. Then focus on three states that look favorable — North Carolina, Arizona, Florida. Everything else is a bonus.

The pandemic, which forced Biden to campaign from his Wilmington home, has served him well politically. He has done some events virtually and hasn't gotten in the way of Trump's self-destructive acts, especially on the coronavirus.

Post-convention, Biden needs to journey out more, physically, but cautiously and substantively. The media mantra that he's hiding is growing; it’s exaggerated, but he needs to open up.

He has a robust progressive agenda on economic, health care and national security issues. However, he has to convey that to voters and enumerate the lethal issues he has opposed, like defunding police or eliminating private health insurance.

Democratic strategists hope he'll roll out a few innovative ideas. He might appeal to passive young voters by embracing the national service plan of Sen. Chris CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsMurkowski: Supreme Court nominee should not be taken up before election Battle lines drawn on precedent in Supreme Court fight Sunday shows - Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death dominates MORE (D-Del.). This appeals to idealism and jobs in what may be a long economic downturn.

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As the campaign inevitably operates in a less-controlled environment, Democrats worry Biden is gaffe-prone. Examples abound; more will occur — and he may be judged more harshly even than Trump, whose pervasive misstatements are well documented.

As long as any verbal miscues don't go to competence or important policies, the problem is exaggerated. Two of the most gaffe-prone national figures were Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush; they did all right. And Biden usually is quick to recognize mistakes. I wrote a column several years ago, criticizing him for saying he'd like to take Trump out on the playground and teach him a lesson. That day, he called: "You thought it was stupid — you should have heard my daughter."

I doubt, however, the Biden forces are really prepared for the Trump blitzkrieg of attacks, smears, personal or family insults, and charges that Biden is a threat to America.

"He has to be ready for an onslaught the likes of which we've never seen," warns Democratic adviser Paul Begala."Until you go over Niagara Falls in a barrel, you don't know what it's like.”

The Wilmington braintrust no doubt has looked at the tape: During the 2016 primaries, Trump suggested the father of rival Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzMurkowski: Supreme Court nominee should not be taken up before election Battle lines drawn on precedent in Supreme Court fight Sunday shows - Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death dominates MORE (R-Texas) was involved in President Kennedy’s 1963 assassination. In the general election, he called Clinton "crooked," said she was severely ill, and accused President Obama of committing "treason" by spying on his campaign. None of it was true.

Trump's at again, charging that Biden sought to help his son make money off foreign dictators and suggesting he suffers from dementia.

Expect it to get much rougher.

So, when assaults are aimed at Biden, his wife or family, this family-centered candidate has to hold his temper and insist the issue is about the suffering of America’s families.

It's critical, says Democratic pollster Geoff Garin, "to stay on the offense and not play defense." Seniors should be reminded of Trump's vow to cut Social Security and Medicare; Latinos, of Trump’s anti-immigration policies. Biden's probably in solid shape with suburban voters, who aren't likely to buy charges that he will inundate their neighborhoods with criminals. Harris, the daughter of a mother who immigrated from India and a Jamaican father, helps with two groups: Blacks, where the issue is enthusiasm and turnout, and the fast-growing Asian-American electorate, already trending Democratic.

Yet, whenever a candidate tries to unseat an incumbent, like Reagan in 1980 or Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBattle lines drawn on precedent in Supreme Court fight Sunday shows - Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death dominates Bill Clinton on GOP push to fill Ginsburg vacancy: Trump, McConnell 'first value is power' MORE in 1992, he has to offer a vision — not Biden's forte — of how he'll make things better.

It's doubtful the conventions, with two well-known candidates in virtual settings, will alter the race much. And it wouldn't be unprecedented to lose a lead like Biden’s, as did the clumsy 1988 Dukakis campaign or Clinton's flawed 2016 effort.

Over the past week, I spoke with a dozen leading political strategists, all of whom doubt that will happen this time. Most were Democrats who indicated the best advice is “DSIU” — as in “don't screw it up.”

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.