Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, speaks during a campaign event in Iowa City, Iowa, U.S. (Photographer: Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg)

Biden Campaign Juggernaut Forces Other Democrats to Recalibrate

(Bloomberg) -- Joe Biden’s entry in the Democratic nomination race has reset the contest and put rival candidates at risk of getting overwhelmed and overshadowed early in the campaign.

The 76-year-old former vice president jumped in last week with a show of strength in polls and fundraising. That’s left the other 19 Democrats in a bind. Most are still introducing themselves to the country and a sudden shift to attacks could turn off voters well before the first primary votes are cast.

What’s clear is the campaign has moved to a new phase and the candidates no longer have the luxury of building a following at their own pace, with the first actual nominating contest still 10 months away. Biden is moving quickly to try and establish an air of inevitability for his candidacy to push Democratic voters into coalescing behind a smaller field.

Biden Campaign Juggernaut Forces Other Democrats to Recalibrate

So far, the other Democratic candidates mostly have been observing an unofficial truce, deflecting questions about their competitors. In an email to supporters last week, Senator Kamala Harris of California welcomed Biden to the race, saying “The more, the merrier.”

But some of their allies are beginning to open fire. Their main line of attack seeks to cast doubt on what Biden touts as his biggest strength: that he’s the most “electable” candidate to face President Donald Trump in 2020.

“Biden eerily reminds me of 2007 Hillary Clinton,” said Bakari Sellers, a former state legislator in South Carolina who’s backing Harris in that state’s primary, a pivotal early contest that could play a big role in winnowing the field of candidates. “Joe Biden’s not saying anything — he’s not really giving people a reason to come out and vote for him. He’s just simply saying don’t vote for Trump, which I think is very dangerous.”

One candidate not adhering to the truce is Biden’s closest rival in the campaign, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the runner-up to Clinton in the 2016 primaries. He quickly went on the offensive.

“I voted against the war in Iraq,” he said on CNN Tuesday, the day after Biden’s kick-off rally in Pittsburgh. “Joe voted it for it. I voted against Nafta, I voted against permanent normal trade relations with China — two trade agreements which cost us millions of good-paying jobs. Joe supported those agreements.”

“I voted against the deregulation of Wall Street. Joe supported that legislation,” he said.

It was a message designed to undercut Biden’s electability argument. Trump attacked Clinton on the same issues in 2016 and ended up winning a critical mass of voters who had backed Barack Obama in 2012, while prompting others to not bother voting. That argument is echoed by activists on the left.

Sean McElwee, an organizer and researcher with the progressive think tank Data for Progress, argues that many voters in the Democratic base will turn away from Biden or not participate once they learn about his past votes in the U.S. Senate on issues like the Iraq war, bankruptcy protections and minimum sentencing requirements.

“I worry that what’s most dangerous for us is a nominee that makes the base of the Democratic Party feel like nobody cares about them.” If it’s Biden, he said, “Trump is going to use the same tactics like last time against Hillary Clinton.”

Biden Campaign Juggernaut Forces Other Democrats to Recalibrate

Biden declined to respond to Sanders’ criticisms during a campaign swing in Iowa. “I’m not going to get into a debate with my colleagues here," he told reporters at an ice cream shop in Monticello. “I’m proud of my record.”

Following Biden’s two-day visit to Iowa Tuesday and Wednesday, Sanders announced a weekend trip to the state, which will hold the first contest in the nomination race next February.

The other candidate going after Biden is Trump. On Wednesday morning he unleashed a string of tweets and retweets deriding Biden’s endorsement by the International Association of Fire Fighters. In an interview with Boston Herald Radio, Trump again called him “sleepy Joe” and delivered some insults.

“He’s not as smart as Bernie and he’s not as quick, but he’s got different views,” Trump said. “They’re all pretty heavy leaning left, including him."

Biden’s made clear he sees his main competition as Trump.

“I understand the president has been tweeting a lot about me this morning. I wonder why the hell he’s doing that,” he said during a speech Wednesday in Iowa City.

Even as he embraces his front-runner status, Biden will have to balance that against delivering an impression of an entitled establishment candidate. That image was a drag on Clinton in 2016 in her primary race against Sanders and in the general election against Trump.

In his stump speeches, Biden regularly makes a point of bringing up Obama, who remains extremely popular among Democrats, stressing how close they remain.

At a stop in Dubuque, Biden sought to downplay rifts within the party even as it becomes younger, less white and more female, with many Democrats embracing progressive ideas like Medicare for All, a Green New Deal and free public college.

Biden Campaign Juggernaut Forces Other Democrats to Recalibrate

“They talk about division in the Democratic Party,” he said. “We agree on basically everything. All of us running — all 400 of us,” he joked. “But I know of too many of my friends in the House and Senate, this is not their Republican Party.”

Over his two days in Iowa, he drew large, and mostly receptive crowds.

Sue Kirk, a 52-year-old attorney from Iowa City who supported Clinton in 2016, said she’s warming up to Biden more than she had expected: “I’m concerned about his age and he has a lot of foibles in his past, but I like what I’m hearing from him the last few days.”

Several voters who attended Biden events this week said they were leaning toward the former vice president, but far from making a final decision.

Roger Kurt, a 64-year-old lawyer from Dubuque who backed Clinton in 2016, said deciding who has the best chance of beating Trump is his “main thing” in making a decision.

He’s interested in Biden, but still assessing the field, with one major exception. “I think Sanders would be a tough sell because I think he would be an easy target for Republicans,” said Kurt, who has been backing Democrats in the Iowa caucuses since Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Kevin Putney, a 59-year-old retired geologist from Iowa City, said he’s likely to back Biden because he’s a “middle of the road” candidate who could win the presidency.

Biden’s support of Nafta doesn’t bother Putney. “It probably is an issue on the far end of the Democratic Party, but it doesn’t make a difference to me,” he said.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.