MANCHESTER, N.H. — After calling for Donald Trump’s impeachment for the first time, Joe Biden experienced something here he rarely sees on the campaign trail: a sustained standing ovation. His Rudy Giuliani joke had the crowd roaring, as did his digs on Trump’s tax secrecy.
It was just the kind of crowd energy the Biden campaign had hoped to tap as it abruptly shifted gears on Wednesday, revealing a new intensity and an amped up response to the president’s relentless attacks.
For a candidate lagging in fundraising, polls and enthusiasm, the roll-out of a swaggering, fire-breathing approach and full embrace of impeachment signaled a dramatic departure from course — a change in direction necessitated by weeks of Trump’s siege warfare.
For weeks, Biden spoke cautiously about impeaching the president, even as every other major Democratic candidate called for it. As Trump repeatedly blasted unproven allegations of wrongdoing against the Bidens, Biden wasn’t aggressive enough for Democrats who want the fight taken to the president.
But in speeches at two events here on Wednesday, Biden attacked the president in the sharpest and most personal terms he’s used since entering the Democratic presidential primary. For the first time, he directly called for Trump’s impeachment. He accused the president of spreading lies and of attempting to extort another country. He even pivoted to ripping on Trump’s personal lawyer Giuliani, mocking him as a man of great “integrity.”
It was his most aggressive posture to date, presenting a case that Trump could not be trusted, while positioning himself as the fighter America needs at this moment to face off against a “bully” and a “coward.”
“He’s afraid of just how badly I will beat him next November,” Biden told New Hampshire crowds. “I’m not going to let him get away with this. He’s picked a fight with the wrong guy.”
Biden didn’t even stop with Trump: He also took a veiled shot at Elizabeth Warren, who has overtaken Biden in recent national polls and whose campaign mantra is centered on her dozens of policy plans.
“It takes a proven ability to get things done,” Biden said in Manchester. “We’re not electing a planner.”
Biden’s shift toward a harsher tone and his evolution on impeachment was born out of circumstance, necessity and personal animus. It came after days of huddling with advisers. The steady stream of new revelations and incendiary statements from Trump made it almost impossible for Biden to not take a more fiery stance.
Aside from the daily drumbeat of news about Trump’s conduct, Biden also fielded incoming complaints from donors and supporters who wanted to see more aggression out of Biden against the president.
“I believe he’s heard from a lot of people, because I have, that it would be good for him to be stronger against Trump,” said Sheila Nix, who’s on Biden’s national finance council. “It would be beneficial for him to take charge and define himself and not let Trump define him.”
While Trump’s attacks over the past two weeks haven’t shown much of a dent in the Democrat’s poll numbers, there has been no tangible sign of a rallying effect either.
And there were signs he was slipping. For the first time, with another nationwide survey showing Warren in first place, the Real Clear Politics polling average on Tuesday showed her marginally ahead of Biden. Something had to change.
“We didn’t want to get ahead of the House, and we don’t want to be dragged into the president’s world of lies and false equivalencies where this just looked like two campaigns battling back and forth,” said a Biden adviser, who was not authorized to speak on behalf of the candidate.
One problem complicating Biden’s response to Trump was the issue of his son Hunter Biden. Prior to entering the race, Biden fretted to friends that “they’re going to go after my boy.” And after Trump did just that, Biden felt the need to release some of his pent-up loathing against Trump, an adviser to the campaign told POLITICO.
But he was hamstrung by the fact that the business arrangements his son had struck when he was vice president just looked bad.
“You don’t want to throw your son under the bus,” the adviser said. “The fact is, there’s only so much Joe could do.”
Biden has so far opted to avoid attacking Trump’s children — who have their own conflict of interest issues — in part because it offends his moderate sensibilities. “But it’s not off the table," the adviser told POLITICO. "We can fight fire with fire."
Another Biden adviser said the sharpened focus was unavoidable.
“It’s the sheer number of things that have happened in the last 15 days: the contents of the call between Trump and the Ukrainian president, the whistleblower complaint being made public showing how the president’s advisers tried to cover it up, calling for China to be improperly involved,” the adviser said. “Finally, in the last 24 hours, it was Trump saying he wouldn’t cooperate with the impeachment inquiry.”
For his part, Biden said at a Wednesday event that he hadn’t planned on making such a major speech in New Hampshire but felt moved by the day’s events, referring to Trump’s decision to pull troops out of Syria.
“Everyone has their breaking point,” said Terry Shumaker, a former Bill Clinton campaign co-chairman in New Hampshire and Biden surrogate who watched Biden’s remarks. “I’ve known Joe for 30 years. I don’t think the speech today was the result of some politically driven decision.”
Still, just hours after Biden’s call for impeachment, Biden’s campaign was fundraising off it.
“Joe called for Trump to be impeached,” a fundraising email said. “Trump was FURIOUS.”
The Trump campaign noticed the change in direction immediately — Trump began tweeting about Biden before his first Wednesday speech was even over. The campaign later slammed Biden’s new stance on impeachment.
“Joe Biden opposed impeachment 4 months ago, saying it's ‘a gigantic distraction‘ from things ‘we should be focusing on getting done,’” the Trump campaign’s War Room account tweeted. “What's changed? He's no longer front-runner, & he's desperate to dodge questions about foreign entities giving money to his son while he was VP!”