Biden’s Rivals Learn That Attacks Only Made Him Stronger

Jennifer Epstein and Tyler Pager
Biden’s Rivals Learn That Attacks Only Made Him Stronger

(Bloomberg) -- Joe Biden took a victory lap Friday.

The Democratic presidential front-runner boasted about his performance in the third Democratic debate during a fundraiser in Houston, telling guests that most of the other candidates on stage highlighted their policy differences with him rather than attacking him directly.

“Fewer and fewer criticize me,” Biden said Friday to laughter from donors at a sprawling apartment in the affluent River Oaks area.

Most of the candidates who have directly criticized Biden on the debate stage or campaign trail haven’t benefited from doing so. Julian Castro’s confrontation with Biden on Thursday was largely panned after he seemed to question the 76-year-old former vice president’s mental acuity in one of the sharpest clashes of the night. Candidates including Cory Booker and Kamala Harris who had singled out Biden at previous debates largely held their fire.

“I think Secretary Castro, who likes to talk about learning from history, clearly didn’t learn from the first two debates that taking personal cheap shots at Vice President Biden actually doesn’t work out that well for the candidate who throws that shot and particularly because it was factually inaccurate,” said Anita Dunn, Biden’s top communications adviser.

“What I saw last night is fewer and fewer personal attacks that were, you know, it was about what are you going to do in the future,” Biden later told reporters as he returned to the campus of Texas Southern University to tour its student center.

Other campaigns are seeing peril in attacking Biden without a clear game plan.

“The voters are smarter than candidates sometimes give them credit for. And if a cheap shot is a cheap shot, they see that,” said Lis Smith, a top aide to Pete Buttigieg. “If a sucker punch is a sucker punch, they see that. And if you think that having your consultants create a made-for-TV moment is going to make you president, you’re wrong and people can see right through it.”

Having witnessed Biden survive attacks and his own self-inflicted wounds since he entered the race nearly five months ago, other campaigns and their allies are still hoping he will falter and that their candidates will be able to capitalize.

“It’s always going to be difficult to take down someone like Biden when there’s 10 people in the field,” said Arizona Congressman Ruben Gallego, who endorsed Harris before Thursday’s debate.

“I do think when voters get to focus on four or five candidates they’re going to be able to do more of a comparison,” Gallego said. “Biden, to his credit, is a very well-respected vice president with a very popular president. I think candidates like Kamala are going to be able to overcome the natural incumbency that Biden has, but it’s not going to be done overnight.”

In particular, candidates have tried to highlight weaknesses in Biden’s long political record, arguing he is out of step with the current Democratic electorate, which has become more diverse and left-leaning in recent years. But Biden said Friday that he didn’t mind when the moderators dug into his record from his earliest years in politics, taking a gentle jab at Elizabeth Warren, who was a Republican until the 2000s.

“This is about the future, this is not about the past,” he said. “I love it when people say, ‘in 1972 you said.’ Well, in 1972, half the people on the stage were Republican for God’s sakes. You all think I’m kidding!”

Biden also took veiled shots at Warren’s long list of policy proposals, which she has been praised for and turned into a campaign slogan.

“We need more than plans. We need a president – we need someone who can execute plans,” he said. “And that’s what I hope this debate gets down to ultimately: What is it not that you want to do but what do you think you can do.”

Heading out of the debate, Biden is also in some ways campaigning on a different track than the rest of the field. While others will spend the weekend in Washington for a Congressional Black Caucus meeting — where he will be represented by his wife, Jill — he’ll be the featured speaker at a Sunday ceremony commemorating the 56th anniversary of the bombing that killed four girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

The Birmingham appearance is yet another moment of “elevating him” and reminding voters that he is “able to do something that Donald Trump can’t,” senior adviser Symone Sanders said. “Regularly, we talk about Donald Trump never really rising to meet the moment when the country is faced with something and this will just be another contrast to that.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Jennifer Epstein in Washington at jepstein32@bloomberg.net;Tyler Pager in Washington at tpager1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Wendy Benjaminson at wbenjaminson@bloomberg.net, Max Berley, John Harney

For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.