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Column: Biden needs to get off his duff and campaign more

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden speaks at a campaign event Monday at Mill 19 in Pittsburgh.
(Associated Press)

Joe Biden has finally emerged from his basement — and Democrats are relieved.

After months of near-seclusion at his home in Delaware, the Democratic nominee has given two well-crafted speeches in two weeks: an eloquent and hopeful acceptance speech at his party’s convention and a forceful attack Monday on President Trump over the boiling issue of urban violence.

So far, so good — but two speeches do not a winning campaign make. Biden needs to do much more in the two months before election day, pandemic or not.

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Aides handle the 77-year-old candidate as if he were as fragile as a Fabergé egg. He still holds most meetings remotely. A recent conversation with his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, occurred across a socially distanced expanse of conference room.

His speech Monday in Pittsburgh was in a cavernous former steel mill, with only television crews and reporters present. But he later donned a mask and stopped by a union local to hand out pizza to firefighters — proving that it’s sometimes worth bending the rules for a good visual.

The most important element of the Pittsburgh speech, a rebuttal of Trump’s overheated charge that Biden is a puppet of “anarchists,” was the controlled anger of his tone.

“You know me,” he told voters. “Do I look to you like a radical socialist?

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“Rioting is not protesting. Looting is not protesting,” he added. “Those who do it should be prosecuted.”

The real problem, he said, is Trump, whom he called “a toxic presence” who is “rooting for chaos and violence.”

That wasn’t just defense. It was offense, too.

In Pittsburgh, Biden showed that he doesn’t intend to let Trump get away with constant accusations and insults unanswered. This is a sharp-elbows game, and the Democrat showed he can compete.

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So what does he need to do now? Plenty.

“He needs to do a series of substantive speeches on the big issues that Democrats want to define this election: COVID, the economy, healthcare, race relations, climate and our role in the world,” Tad Devine, a veteran party strategist, told me.

That doesn’t require nonstop campaigning and giant rallies.

“They’re doing the right thing by keeping him not just alive, but fresh,” Devine said. “Doing too many events a day is a huge mistake.”

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Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan often did only one event a day, he noted. Both, it should also be noted, won reelection.

Here’s my to-do list for Biden.

He needs to show up in more states than just Delaware and Pennsylvania. He said last week that he plans to hit major battleground states after Labor Day, including Wisconsin, Minnesota and Arizona.

But the election also will be decided in Michigan, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and New Hampshire. Trump hit New Hampshire a day after the Republican convention ended. He went to Kenosha, Wis., on Tuesday and will go to North Carolina on Thursday and western Pennsylvania on Friday.

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Biden needs to get to all of them — now. Aides say the campaign is considering a trip to Wisconsin as early as Thursday.

Biden needs to find more ways to focus the campaign on issues central to his pitch: taming the pandemic, rebuilding the economy, expanding Obamacare. He doesn’t want to be caught in an endless loop of punching back at Trump, especially on Trump’s terms.

Aides said he plans to begin with a speech on school reopenings Wednesday near his home in Wilmington, Del.

He needs to reach out directly to blue-collar voters who backed Barack Obama in 2008 or 2012 but defected to Trump in 2016 — an important demographic in the industrial Midwest.

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He needs to find a way to speak in front of live audiences without violating social distancing — a difficult task for a campaign that wants to emphasize that the pandemic is still a crisis, but not an impossible one.

He needs to hold regular news conferences — not only to show that he can handle unscripted questions but to tune up for his three debates with Trump, which begin Sept. 29.

He needs more help from surrogates, beginning with Obama and Sen. Bernie Sanders, the democratic socialist from Vermont who lost to Biden in the primaries. Obama can help energize Black voters and white voters who supported him before; Sanders can appeal to young progressives, a weak spot in Biden’s support.

And of course, he could use more help from Trump, who has already stumbled by setting low expectations (“Biden doesn’t know he’s alive,” the president said — again — on Tuesday) and by refusing to condemn violence by his own supporters.

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Perhaps most important, Biden needs to maintain the discipline he has somehow found in the last few months after a long career in which he was often most famous for his verbal gaffes.

He has made a better start than some of his supporters expected. Now he has to keep this up for nine mistake-free weeks — and that, for Biden, will be a major challenge.


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