By most reckonings, Joe Biden has had several pretty lousy months.
His fundraising has been unimpressive. His performance in debates has ranged from poor to middling. He has repeatedly demonstrated his penchant for putting a foot where his molars should be.
Despite all that, and efforts by President Trump to darken his family name, Biden will be front and center once more when Democrats return to the debate stage Tuesday night, reflecting his continued standing at or near the top of the 2020 field.
Part of the reason can be explained by the Rev. Joseph Darby of South Carolina. The state, which holds an early primary, is key to Biden’s campaign.
“People have known him for a while,” said Darby, senior pastor of Nichols Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston and first vice president of the local NAACP. “He projects an air of stability. All of that helps him.”
As for the president’s attempts to paint Biden as corrupt, “I don’t think anybody’s even talking about the accusations, and I suspect it’s because Donald Trump lies like a rug,” Darby said.
After months of jostling, the presidential race has entered an important new phase, as Biden faces a surging Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders seeks to recover, physically and politically, from a recent heart attack, and the rest of the still-crowded field fights for a way to be heard over the cacophony surrounding Trump’s possible impeachment.
A dozen candidates are set to take the stage Tuesday in Ohio — the most ever in a presidential debate — for one of their last nationally televised gatherings before the holiday season starts and most voters take a break from politics.
No one has more at stake than Biden, who started the race in April as one of the most precarious front-runners in modern times and has since offered friends and allies ample reason for concern.
“It’s his race to lose,” said David Axelrod, a top strategist for the Obama-Biden presidential ticket, who remains neutral in the Democratic contest. “And a lot of people who support him are frightened he just might find a way to do it.”
Biden brings a unique set of assets and liabilities to his third try for the White House.
He is regarded with respect and deep affection by many Democrats, especially older, more moderate voters and elders in the African American community who appreciate his faithful service alongside President Obama.
“I describe it as favorability and ‘flavorability’ when it comes to the political nerve center of this party,” said Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist in South Carolina. By that, Seawright meant a mutual bond with black voters who, he said, view the former vice president as “Uncle Joe,” “Mr. Relatable” and “Mr. Reliable.”
He suggested Trump’s incessant sniping at Biden might even help his candidacy. “You don’t attack what you don’t fear,” Seawright said.
But at 76 years old, Biden faces persistent questions about his age and acuity that have only heightened as the campaign wears on.
Sanders’ heart attack — the Vermont senator is only about a year older than Biden — has made health and stamina a more pertinent issue for the septuagenarians in the race, which includes Massachusetts Sen. Warren. (She turned 70 in June.)
It’s his race to lose. And a lot of people who support him are frightened he just might find a way to do it.
At the same time, Trump’s attacks on Biden over his vice presidential dealings with Ukraine have renewed doubts about the Democrat’s political instincts and agility.
He waited more than a week before delivering a speech angrily denouncing the president for falsely claiming Biden intervened in Ukraine on behalf of his son Hunter, who served on the board of a Kyiv natural gas company. Biden’s call days later for Trump’s impeachment came long after most other candidates had staked that position.
Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) said Biden was too slow to shed his gentlemanly demeanor and, now that he has, needs to keep it up. “People want to see you fighting for them,” said Clyburn, who has chaperoned numerous candidates through his home state, which Biden is counting on should he fare poorly in the opening contests in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Trump’s solicitation of overseas help digging up dirt on his political rival has spurred the House to begin its impeachment inquiry after months of holding back. Still, fairly or not, the investigation has also given some Democrats a queasy sense of deja vu.
“Even if this is a big ‘nothing burger’ about Hunter Biden, it smells like the Clinton server redux,” said one prominent Iowa Democrat, referring to the controversy over a private email server that plagued Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.
“Is this all we’re going to talk about?” said the party leader, who is not taking sides in the nominating contest but did not wish to be named to avoid antagonizing Biden and his supporters. “We’ve got a chance to win this and don’t want to blow it by letting Trump shift the focus onto something else.”
Although Biden has fallen from his early standing in the Democratic race and is now tied with or even trailing Warren in some polls, surveys suggest Trump’s attacks have so far had little effect. A recent Wall Street Journal-NBC poll showed 57% of Democratic primary voters had a positive view of the former vice president and longtime Delaware senator, compared with just 10% with a negative view, about the same as in August.
John Anzalone, a pollster and strategist for Biden’s campaign, said part of the candidate’s political strength is his familiarity after nearly half a century in public life.
“Not only do voters know Joe Biden, they feel Joe Biden knows them. He’s authentic. He’s relatable,” Anzalone said. “Things that opinion elites and the media will focus on, a statement here or there, voters roll their eyes about. They have a different meter for what’s important and what’s not important.”
With Warren rising in polls, there is every expectation she will soon begin receiving much closer scrutiny; how she bears up could go a considerable distance in determining Biden’s political fate.
At the moment, though, it is he who is being targeted and politically tested in ways Biden never has been before. For all the doubts and second thoughts that Trump’s assault has dredged up, some see a potential opportunity, starting with Tuesday’s debate, for Biden to turn the president’s search-and-destroy mission to his advantage.
“He can in dramatic fashion say: ‘It’s very simple, folks. There’s a reason why he’s gone after me through my son,’ ” Paul Maslin, a veteran Democratic consultant, suggested. “ ‘The reason, and he knows it damn well, is that I’m the guy who can beat him. I’m the guy he fears.’ ”
The Biden camp says he is ready for Trump and Ukraine to come up in the debate and is prepared to respond, forcefully. Given his unsteady footing, Biden can ill afford another string of lousy months.
Times staff writers Tyrone Beason in Los Angeles and Janet Hook in Washington contributed to this report.