(Bloomberg) -- Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren are charting vastly different paths to the Democratic nomination that could collide beginning with Thursday’s debate.
Warren is building a movement for “big, structural change,” and Biden is focused on beating President Donald Trump in what he often describes as a “battle for the soul of this nation.” But they have campaigned on parallel lines, not criticizing each other or pro-actively making distinctions between their visions.
At the third Democratic presidential debate in Houston on Thursday, they will share a stage for the first time, giving voters and pundits their first chance to directly compare the two candidates.
Biden aides downplay the prospects of a clash of the front-runners, noting that the eight other candidates, including Bernie Sanders, will be looking to score points on Biden because he’s in the lead.
Even though Sanders has consistently polled in second place, his support has stayed constant, while Warren has crept up to a virtual tie with Sanders. And the number of people who believe she could beat Trump is rising as well
Still, there are distinctions to make, including the 2005 battle over a bankruptcy bill that Biden supported and Warren, then a Harvard professor, testified against. She sees its passage as evidence of the power of special interests in Washington. They also have a range of policy differences, including Warren’s support of Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, while Biden’s proposals on health care and climate call for working within existing systems.
The candidates have also begun to obliquely point out their differences, aware that many Democratic voters are torn between Warren’s “go big” approach as opposed to Biden’s more traditional and incremental style of politics.
“Plans are great, but executing on those plans is a very different thing,” Biden said last week at a town hall on climate change in a clear swipe at Warren’s slogan, “I have a plan for that.” A Biden adviser said the former vice president intends to reiterate that point in the debate, not just to nudge Warren but to distinguish him from all the other candidates on stage, who have shorter government careers than his.
Warren, meanwhile, has begun swiping at the Biden campaign’s emphasis on beating Trump and the perceived lack of enthusiasm around his candidacy.
“There is a lot at stake and people are scared,” Warren said Saturday at the New Hampshire Democratic Party Convention, where she received boisterous cheers from a crowd that included college students bused in from Massachusetts and New York. “But we can’t choose a candidate we don’t believe in because we’re scared. And we can’t ask other people to vote for someone we don’t believe in. We win when we call out what is broken, when we show how to fix it, and when we build a grassroots movement to get it done.”
Warren’s promise of “big, structural change” is as much about her detailed policy positions as it is about her approach to her presidential campaign, said Brian Fallon, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 press secretary. “It’s intensity, enthusiasm, shaking things up versus the old way of doing things,” he said. “It’s even more of a problem for Biden to contend with than the messaging part of her framing.”
Warren has sworn off holding high-dollar fundraisers unless she becomes the nominee and spends time phoning donors, calling potential political allies and posing for tens of thousands of “selfies” -- more often than not photos taken by a campaign aide. Biden is almost constantly on the fundraising circuit. He – like other candidates who rely on big donors to keep their campaigns afloat – will raise money at two post-debate fundraisers.
He spends as much as possible of the week before debates outside of public view, preparing with his team at a Delaware conference center. Warren has preceded each debate with a town hall or rally. On Tuesday, it was an early evening event in Austin, the latest stop on her tour of liberal strongholds, which took her to Seattle last month and New York City on Monday.
In Austin, she dodged questions about being on stage with Biden. “I see this as a chance to talk about why I’m in the race and I assume that’s what all the other Democrats are going to do too,” she said.
As for the viability of her proposals, she said, “Well, I think that we start with a plan. And then we get out there and fight for it. To me, that’s what being president is all about.”
While Warren’s big rallies aren’t directly targeting voters in early primary states, they do “send a larger signal about electability and that she has momentum on her side,” said Adam Green, founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has endorsed Warren.
Warren’s approach appears to be helping her make inroads on electability, Biden’s key argument. In a CBS News/YouGov poll released Sunday, 55% of Democratic voters considering Warren said they think she would probably win against Trump, up from 45% in July and 39% in June in the same poll. But she’s still behind Biden, with 77% of voters considering him saying they think he would probably beat Trump.
Biden “is banking on that fear of her being unelectable,” Fallon said, pointing out that Warren is “making headway.” For now, though, “it’s Warren’s number-one hurdle and also Biden’s number-one firewall.”
While Biden appears to be positioning himself to criticize Warren for putting forward unrealistic plans, some voters are giving her credit for having untried ideas.
“I think the fact that she has specificity in her plans gives her a push. She doesn’t talk about generalities and seems to have given thought to what she’s putting out there,” said South Carolina State Senator Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a Democrat who has not yet made an endorsement. “It’s refreshing to see candidates talk in specificity.”
Tom McCormack, 72, of New Castle, New Hampshire, said at a Biden town hall there last week that while he likes Biden, “he’s too vague about what he wants to do -- he has to be more specific.” McCormack gave Warren and Pete Buttigieg credit for their specificity but also questioned the feasibility of her ideas. “I want her to stop saying Medicare for All,” he said. “Too idealistic.”
Tera and Steve Terhune, both 46, attended a Biden town hall last week along the banks of the Piscataqua River and are just looking for a “return to normalcy,” he said. “Just being able to not worry,” she added.
They see Biden as one person who could fit that bill but said that Warren might, too.
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