(Bloomberg) — Joe Biden kicks off the most high-stakes week of his campaign so far, as he heads into the first Democratic debate with the opportunity to solidify his front-runner status — or jeopardize it with a gaffe, an inappropriate joke or a tone-deaf comment.
The former vice president doesn’t need to win the debate, he just needs not to lose, as his 19 rivals seek to break out of the unprecedentedly large Democratic field by taking him on. And he has given them plenty of ammunition with recent unforced errors such as comments about his civil relationships with segregationist senators in the 1970s and his flip-flop on federal abortion funding.
“The biggest risk and peril for Biden is Joe Biden,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic consultant based in Boston. “He has a proclivity for making mistakes, for not apologizing for them, and then oftentimes not explaining his positions on things.”
Biden, 76, benefits from high name recognition, strong relationships with party leaders and a perception that he’s the most “electable” Democrat to put up against President Donald Trump, 73. Until now, he has largely been able to stay above the fray, keeping a low-key campaign schedule with sparse events and press interviews. The debates — Biden’s first since 2012 — are his chance to show the country he has the gravitas his opponents lack.
But the event follows the toughest stretch for Biden since he started his campaign in April. His remarks about working alongside segregationist lawmakers in the Senate set off several days of attacks from activists and rivals, including Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, the two major black candidates in the race.
Biden had dismissed Booker’s demands for an apology, and had instead asked the New Jersey senator to apologize to him. Asked this weekend whether the two candidates needed to “bury the hatchet,” Booker said: “There is no hatchet.” The issue, however, could carry over to the debates.
“I have a lot of respect and gratitude for the vice president and I want folks to know I have nothing to apologize for when it comes to speaking truth to power, and he’s a powerful person,” Booker told reporters at a gathering of Democratic candidates in South Carolina on Saturday.
The televised debates on NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo feature 20 Democratic candidates split into groups of 10 on Wednesday and Thursday. Each night will include a mix of top-tier and lower-polling contenders. Biden will appear on Thursday along with Harris and Senator Bernie Sanders and Mayor Pete Buttigieg. The first night will match Senator Elizabeth Warren against former Representative Beto O’Rourke, Booker and Senator Amy Klobuchar.
Biden’s team is anticipating attacks at the debate. A campaign adviser said other candidates are looking for a breakout moment, but he suggested that Biden doesn’t plan to engage because voters know who he is. The adviser, who discussed strategy on condition of anonymity, said the candidate plans to contrast attacks with a positive message about steady and ethical leadership and by emphasizing the stakes of the election as a battle for the country’s soul.
On Monday, Biden touted his immigration policies in an op-ed published in the Miami Herald. Biden also bashed Trump’s “morally bankrupt re-election strategy,” which he said “relies on vilifying immigrants to score political points while implementing policies that ensure asylum seekers and refugees keep arriving at our border.” Biden’s biggest advantage may be his far deeper store of debate experience. He is a veteran of presidential forums since his ill-fated 1988 run, his 2008 bid that led to his selection as Barack Obama’s running mate, as well as the vice presidential debates in 2008 and 2012.
Some Democrats credit his 2012 performance against Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan with stopping the bleeding from Obama’s re-election campaign after the president bombed in his first debate.
“He is a good debater. A lot of people miss that,” said Tad Devine, an adviser to past presidential campaigns such as Sanders’ strong challenge to Hillary Clinton in 2016.
In the 2008 Democratic debates, Biden demonstrated his composure, fluency on the issues and a knack for using humor to create memorable moments.
In a July 2007 debate, when the Democrats were asked if they’d work for the minimum wage, Obama said the candidates on stage “don’t have Mitt Romney money” but were wealthy enough to afford it. “I don’t have Barack Obama money, either. My net worth is $70,000-$150,000,” Biden said, drawing warm laughter from the crowd. “I couldn’t afford to stay in the Congress for the minimum wage, but if I could get a second job I’d do it.”
In another debate, Biden responded to a question about whether a man with his gaffe-prone tendencies can reassure voters he has the discipline to perform on the world stage, the then-senator responded coolly with a one-word answer: “Yes.” The debate hall erupted in laughter, and NBC moderator Brian Williams moved on.
Devine said debates tend not to harm campaigns unless a candidate makes a “catastrophic mistake.” As an example, he cited President Gerald Ford insisting in a 1976 faceoff with Jimmy Carter that there was “no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe,” which stunned the moderator and planted seeds of doubt in Ford’s abilities that would grow and irreparably harm his standing.
“Carter didn’t have the foreign policy expertise in the minds of voters and Ford gave him an advantage in the area that he was the weakest,” he said. “That might’ve decided the election.”
But Devine also cautioned that Biden’s front-runner status makes him the chief target of his “opponents who are trying to position off you” and that he must be ready to respond.
“That tends to be the most difficult position for any candidate to be in during a debate setting,” he said. “If somebody comes after you, you’ve got to demonstrate that you’re strong, that you can deal with that kind of incoming, because everybody knows that’s how Trump is going to play.”
Beyond Booker and Harris, other Democrats have already begun to take jabs at Biden, though sometimes not by name.
Warren mocked the idea that if Democrats “just calm down, the Republicans will come to their senses” — a reference to Biden arguing that many in the GOP will have “an epiphany” and change their behavior once Trump leaves office.
Some of opponents have sought to brand him as a relic of the past. Sanders has attacked Biden’s votes to approve Nafta and authorize the Iraq war, insisting that the U.S. “cannot go back to the old ways.”
Buttigieg, 37, is pitching generational change and said Democrats will lose to Trump if they “look too much like Washington.” Harris said Biden’s remark about having a good working relationship with segregationists “concerns me deeply — if those men had their way, I wouldn’t be in the United States Senate.”
‘Come For Him’
“They’re going to come for him,” said Democratic strategist Joe Trippi. “Everybody in this race right now is desperately trying to contrast themselves with Biden.”
“It worked for them to come into the game late and to stay above the fray,” Trippi said of the Biden campaign. “But not being in the fray now could be a real risk, where he’s just not as deep into the debate as the rest of the field.”
The upside for Biden, Trippi said, is that his opponents “are all in each other’s way — Bernie’s in Warren’s way and Warren’s in Bernie’s way; Beto is in Buttigieg’s way and Buttigieg is in Beto’s way; Booker’s in Kamala’s way; and so on.”
Biden’s task is to prove wrong those Democrats who believe his strong standing won’t persist.
“Joe Biden’s support is a mile wide and an inch deep,” Marsh said. “So yes, the stakes are high.”
–With assistance from Emma Kinery.
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