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Iowa Diary

Jill Biden tries to close the deal for her husband, one tiny Iowa town at a time

Biden has been wooing nervous voters with frank talk and offers to answer more questions over email.

Jill Biden, the wife of former vice president Joe Biden, speaks to a group of mostly undecided voters in Audubon, Iowa. (Holly Bailey/The Washington Post) (Holly Bailey/Washington Post/Holly Bailey/Washington Post )
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AUDUBON, Iowa — For weeks, Jill Biden has been navigating the back roads of Iowa, traversing through multiple snow and ice storms to reach tiny towns far off the beaten path of presidential politics. She is there to pitch undecided Democrats on the candidacy of her husband, Joe.

It is a role the spouses of politicians often play, stepping into the campaign spotlight to show a different, more human side of the candidate to voters. But what more do you say if your husband is Joe Biden, whose brand is deeply rooted in the fact that he is so glaringly human — from his very public grief over the family tragedies that have defined his life to his propensity to be, as he once put it, “a gaffe machine.”

To that end, Jill Biden has stepped into a slightly different role than the one usually played by a political spouse ahead of Iowa’s first-in-the-nation Feb. 3 caucuses. In many ways, she has become the campaign’s closer, in some cases literally — often speaking after her husband has concluded his remarks at his events around the state.

Washington Post reporter Holly Bailey is taking you across Iowa this month with a daily dispatch from the state

Smiling and upbeat, and sounding a lot like the college writing professor that she is, Jill Biden asks voters to imagine the drama-free world that could exist if her spouse wins the presidency, where they could turn on the television without coverage of a “late-night tweetstorm” or feel as if the nation is “on the brink of some ill-advised war.”

“A commander in chief that you can trust. A leader who brings people together. A president that you can feel proud of,” she tells voters. “That's my husband, Joe Biden.”

Jill Biden is a relentless charm machine, with a jammed schedule of half a dozen or more events a day here as she seeks to win over voters. On a swing through rural Western Iowa this week, she spoke to small rooms of mostly undecided voters, including a group of about 10 people who had gathered inside a Mexican restaurant on a frigid Monday afternoon.

Introduced by a young Biden field organizer as the person who knows Joe Biden the best — “or so we hope,” he added, prompting awkward smiles among those in the room and a loud laugh from Jill herself — the former second lady gave a short stump speech emphasizing her husband’s working-class roots and decades of Washington experience.

She quickly put her notes away and pushed back the small lectern that had been set up. She paced the floor smiling and waiting for someone to speak. When no one said anything, Biden began to pepper the voters with questions instead, not unlike a teacher trying to draw out silent students. At moments, it felt more like a focus group than a campaign event.

“Now, I know that some of you are still making up your minds. Right? No? Yes? … Anybody over here?” she said, scanning the room as most of the voters nodded their heads. “All right, so I know you've probably seen a lot of candidates, correct? Yeah? I bet you've seen at least five. Five? Yeah? Okay.”

The group, which included mostly older voters, looked embarrassed to admit to the wife of a candidate that they were still undecided, but Biden sought to reassure them. “No, I honor that because you take your job seriously,” she said. “You are electing the next president of the United States.”

Biden, a native of Philadelphia who still speaks with a hint of an accent, began to walk back and forth like a salesman making a pitch. “You say to me, ‘Okay, Jill, so why Joe? … Why should I go to caucus for Joe?’ ” she continued.

She cited support Biden’s support among independents — “No Democrat can win without their support,” she said — and his ability to win over moderate Republicans. She pointed to Biden’s support in swing states including Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan. “Think of all the candidates, think of the ones that appeal to you, and ask yourselves … who can win in swing states?” she said. “Joe is the only one beating Donald Trump in those states.” She argued that her husband’s policies would be more “achievable” and that he is simply more electable than anybody else.

“We have a lot of super great Democrats on the ticket, great ones who are smart and have great plans. And that’s great. Let’s put them in the Cabinet. I’m all for that,” she continued. “There are a lot of them who have a lot of different strengths. But Joe has so many strengths. He’s experienced. He walks in Day One: He’s ready to go.”

The voters smiled but still said nothing. Biden grinned at them. “Anyone have a question? Anything I can do?” she said.

A woman finally spoke up. “I know a lot of people are concerned about his age. And, goodness, we are all getting to that ripe old age,” she said. Would her husband consider tapping a younger Democrat as his running mate? Maybe someone currently running, maybe a woman?

Jill Biden clasped her hands and smiled, not unlike her husband when he has been pressed on the same question by other voters around the state. “All those options are open,” she said, pointing to Joe Biden’s remarks that, if he wins the nomination, he would appoint someone who shares his beliefs but also would be honest and candid with him — similar to the role he played when he was tapped by Barack Obama to be his running mate.

Unlike her husband, Jill Biden pressed a little further. “Who would you suggest?” she asked, looking around the room. The quiet room suddenly erupted, with multiple voters calling out “Amy!” — referring to Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), a centrist who has been popular among rural Iowans, even as she remains in single digits in the polls.

“Amy? You’re all for Amy? Okay,” Jill Biden said, nodding. She looked toward a table of three older women who had sat mostly silent for most of the event and tried to coax them to weigh in. “We haven’t decided yet,” one of the women said, almost apologetically.

“That’s okay,” Jill Biden said reassuringly.

Afterward, she made the rounds, posing for pictures and trying to engage those who had not said much during the event. She was already running a little late on her schedule, but she was determined to talk to everyone in the room. She readily handed out her email, asking people to contact her if they had questions about her husband as they came to their final decision.

She laughed at the suggestion she was her husband’s closer. “I don’t think Joe needs anybody to close anything for him,” she said.

As she spoke, she kept an eye on the voters who lingered. Behind her were those three undecided women. She did not want them to get away, and then she approached. “How can I convince you?” she asked them. “What will it take?