Some of Joe Biden’s supporters are voicing growing concern that his campaign is not prepared to weather the dual political rip currents suddenly reshaping the 2020 race — an onslaught of attacks on his family from President Trump and a tightened contest for the Democratic nomination.
Several allies, including top financial backers, are weighing whether to create a super PAC to independently defend Biden and go after the president, who has repeatedly accused the former vice president of corruption and whose campaign last week launched a $10 million ad blitz aimed largely at attacking Biden.
Other supporters caution that a more aggressive approach could cut against Biden’s above-the-fray appeal and warn him against losing sight of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), whose steady march in popularity has eroded Biden’s standing and given her narrow leads over him in several recent polls in early-voting states.
“I do think things have changed. . . . You have to recalibrate based on the fact that Trump’s attacks on you are going to be at the center of these impeachment hearings,” said Larry Rasky, a longtime ally of Biden’s who had senior roles in his two previous presidential campaigns. Rasky said he worries Biden’s campaign has been naive about the amount of resources needed to counter Trump.
The new demand that Biden simultaneously run a general election matchup with Trump and a primary campaign against several formidable Democratic challengers risks straining a campaign that started later and has organized more slowly than some of his rivals’ efforts.
Biden’s campaign for now seems to have settled on an approach similar to the one Democrats used in the 2018 midterms, trying to ignore Trump as much as possible to focus instead on issues they believe are more resonant with voters.
Biden, who has insisted his election would return the country to normalcy, has over the past several days largely sought to avoid the political spasm in which he is now a central figure. His campaign has sent out daily statements on health care and other issues, as if leaning toward predictability in a highly unpredictable time. Attempting to keep the focus on Trump, he has only sporadically talked about the attacks on him and his son Hunter.
At a fundraiser Saturday in Park City, Utah, the host, Barry Baker, called Trump a “lying, narcissistic traitor, cheater,” while Biden over the course of a 20-minute speech did not mention impeachment or the president’s dealings with Ukraine.
“This isn’t about me. . . . It’s a tactic that’s used by this president to try to hijack an election so we do not focus on the issues that matter in our lives,” Biden said last week.
Biden has sent out a string of fundraising emails — which his campaign says resulted in its best donation week since early in the campaign — and some longtime confidants hope he can avoid getting dragged into Trump’s bombastic antagonism. They have called or messaged Biden and urged him to avoid getting into a bitter back-and-forth with the president, reminding him that the political landscape is littered with foes whose character Trump has dirtied.
“For Joe Biden to get down in the mud with this guy, whatever stank on him will run off on Joe,” said Dick Harpootlian, a Democratic state senator from South Carolina and a longtime Biden supporter. “He’s handling it the way he should — with restraint I could not handle on my best day. I mean, [Trump] is coming after his family. In my part of the country there would be fisticuffs over this.”
“Trump is goading him,” he added. “But if you want a Democratic Donald Trump who screams and yells and lies, then you need to vote for someone else. Because that isn’t Joe Biden.”
Already the Trump onslaught has had an impact on the Democratic side of the presidential race, overshadowing efforts by Biden and others to more pointedly put Warren on defense on a host of issues.
Yet the benefit to Biden, as some of his advisers see it, is the possibility that Democrats will view his response as statesmanlike and rally behind him amid attacks they see as unfair. So far they believe the approach is providing dividends.
“Joe Biden, Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi are the three most important people in American politics right now,” said Sean Bagniewski, chairman of the Polk County Democrats in Iowa, who is neutral in the race. “It propels him to the limelight in ways that other folks don’t get. It seems everybody else is playing catch-up; they are trying to get the limelight back.”
The impeachment proceedings now underway in the House followed revelations that Trump asked the Ukrainian president to investigate Biden and his son. The administration had previously held up congressionally approved aid to Ukraine, which is in the midst of a conflict with Russia after its invasion of the Ukrainian territory Crimea.
Hunter Biden served for nearly five years on the board of Burisma, Ukraine’s largest private gas company, whose owner earlier came under scrutiny by Ukrainian prosecutors for possible abuse of power and unlawful enrichment.
Hunter Biden was not accused of any wrongdoing in the investigation. As vice president, Joe Biden pressured Ukraine to fire the top prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, who Biden and other Western officials said was not sufficiently pursuing corruption cases. At the time, the investigation into Burisma was dormant, according to former Ukrainian and U.S. officials.
Trump has delved into exaggeration and falsehoods in his fusillade of accusations against Biden. Yet the episode also has raised the uncomfortable question for Biden about whether he should have allowed his son to make money from a Ukrainian company at the same time he was overseeing the Obama administration’s efforts to crack down on corruption there. Already, several of Biden’s presidential foes have obliquely engaged on that topic.
Ed Rendell, a former Pennsylvania governor and a top Biden supporter, said he thought Biden has handled the issue “just perfectly” so far, but he quickly added that it’s hard to tell whether the accusations will have a lingering impact.
“I don’t think Democrats will think there’s any truth to the attack,” Rendell said. “But some might worry that if Biden gets elected, there will be all sorts of grand juries and Republicans will look into this stuff. . . . Not that Democrats believe Joe would do anything corrupt, but just that it would be charge and countercharge.”
The episode has crystallized an existing sense of anxiety among some of Biden’s top donors and longtime supporters about his campaign. Some allies have been expressing concerns for weeks that Biden doesn’t seem to be the happy warrior he had been in previous campaigns. They have urged him and the campaign to adopt a more assertive and focused message, one that puts the middle class front and center.
Some of those worries have led to preliminary discussions, in Chicago and Washington, over whether to launch a pro-Biden super PAC. Biden’s campaign has publicly discouraged any outside assistance, which could open him up to attacks from Warren and Sanders that he is being bankrolled by wealthy interests. Those discussions, first reported by the New York Times, are ongoing.
Among those involved have been Rasky; former Biden staffer Mark Doyle; Julianna Smoot, a Democratic fundraiser who led Barack Obama’s campaign finance team in 2008 and was deputy campaign manager in 2012; and Democratic consultant Mark Riddle.
In a sign of what Biden is up against, the Trump campaign announced Friday the $10 million ad campaign focused on Biden, his son and Ukraine. It includes a video snippet of Biden saying the U.S. would withhold a $1 billion loan guarantee if Ukraine did not fire the corrupt prosecutor.
“But when President Trump asks Ukraine to investigate corruption, the Democrats want to impeach him,” the narrator says. “They lost the election. Now they want to steal this one. Don’t let them.”
The Biden campaign has attempted to reassure donors and has sent out talking points to allies to encourage a public response to Trump.
“We’re in a battle for the soul of this nation, and Donald Trump just revealed to the entire world how terrified he is that he’ll lose it to Joe Biden,” Andrew Bates, a campaign spokesman, said in a statement. “That’s because the contrast between the vice president and Donald Trump couldn’t be more powerful.”
While conceding that they are in a highly unpredictable environment, Biden advisers believe their candidate will ultimately benefit from contrasts with Trump over both issues and leadership.
“A lot of us who know Joe Biden think it’s incredibly unfair,” said Tom Vilsack, a former Iowa governor who served as Agriculture secretary in the Obama administration. “And it’s a tactic some folks have used in the past to gain political advantage, and … we shouldn’t allow that. As voters we should say, ‘Hell, no, we’re not going to do that.’ ”
Vilsack, who remains uncommitted in the Democratic primary, said voters should focus on how Biden has avoided getting caught up in personal attacks. He added that the current environment is showcasing what a general election between the two men would look like — which could calm voters.
“The Biden campaign seems to be able to handle the attacks,” he said. “We really don’t know what the attacks about these other candidates are going to be.”
Some Biden allies privately draw a contrast with Warren, and Trump’s assault over her past claims of Native American heritage. Afterward, she dropped rapidly in the polls; she has risen steadily over the past six months at a time when Biden was bearing the brunt of Trump’s criticism.
Alan Feirer, the party chairman in Madison County in Iowa, has expressed some skepticism of Biden in the past but said he is impressed by how he handled the past week.
“We’ve been reminded what a statesman he is, because he hasn’t risen to the bait of what Trump was presenting over the past few days,” said Feirer, who is staying neutral. “I don’t think it’s instilled doubt or anything. If anything it’s instilled more confidence and reminded people why they like him. He’s been classy.”
Annie Linskey and Michelle Ye Hee Lee contributed to this report.