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Joe Biden’s campaign plays the electability card: ‘You have to look at who is going to win’

A plane flies overhead carrying a “Focus on Rural” banner as Joe Biden speaks at the Iowa State Fair on Aug. 8 in Des Moines. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

PROLE, Iowa — Joe Biden, his wife and his entire campaign apparatus have put an electability argument front and center this week in an attempt to dispel any lingering concerns among Democrats about his ideology, his age or his verbal mistakes.

While acknowledging that many in the party don’t agree with him — and that he may not excite them — they are attempting to make the case that he is the Democrat best positioned to defeat President Trump.

“I think that for the first time in my career, the person viewed as who is best capable of defeating this president rises above the test of, ‘I have to agree with the person 100 percent,’ ” Biden said Wed­nesday, a view multiple polls have confirmed.

Electability is the point of his first campaign ad, now airing across Iowa. It includes a graphic showing four polls in which Biden handily defeated Trump.

“We have to beat Donald Trump,” a gravelly voiced narrator says. “And all the polls agree Joe Biden is the strongest Democrat to do the job.”

Jill Biden urges support for husband even if voters consider their candidates ‘better’ on the issues

It also was the case put forth this week by Biden’s chief campaign surrogate, Jill Biden.

Jill Biden, wife of former vice president Joe Biden, said on Aug. 19 that voters need “to look at who’s going to win this election” against President Trump. (Video: MSNBC/NBC News)

“You may like another candidate better, but you have to look at who is going to win,” Jill Biden told a group of educators in New Hampshire, in a bracing acknowledgment that her husband does not electrify the Democratic masses.

“Your candidate might be better on, I don’t know, health care than Joe is,” she said, “but you’ve got to look at who’s going to win this election. And maybe you have to swallow a little bit and say, ‘Okay, I sort of personally like so-and-so better.’ But your bottom line has to be that we have to beat Trump.”

As the Democratic primary campaign trundles on, Biden is winning polite applause from audiences that respect him but clearly are not as fired up by his presence as are crowds for other candidates. He has made verbal miscues nearly daily as his more disciplined opponents hew closely to their chosen messages.

And yet his standing atop the polls as the candidate seen as most able to defeat Trump — including in key states needed to secure the presidency — has been an enduring aspect of an otherwise volatile primary contest.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and other Biden opponents have sought to poke holes in the electability argument.

“Can’t we have bigger aspirations than that? Beating Donald Trump is the floor, not the ceiling,” Booker said during an Iowa Federation of Labor event near Des Moines on Wednesday.

“We need a candidate that is not the safe bet,” he added. “We need the candidate that can speak not just to the head but to the heart and to the gut.”

Yet Biden’s argument is resonating with some voters, based on interviews with a dozen undecided Iowans who attended his events over the past two days. Some see him as the candidate most likely to appeal to white voters in the upper Midwest who flipped to Trump. Others say they value his moderate positions on issues and a tone they find unifying.

Biden also has held on so far to his popularity among black voters, making him the only top candidate with dual strengths.

“He’s the most electable,” said Tim Weil, a 64-year-old farmer from Prole, a town about 20 miles southwest of Des Moines where Biden held an event Tuesday in a barn. “That’s the whole point. Doesn’t do you any good if you can’t get elected.”

“If Trump wasn’t president, maybe I’d be interested in some of the other candidates,” said Karen Fulfurd, a 62-year-old health insurance compliance analyst from West Des Moines who attended a rally in Urbandale. “But this is a different kind of election. The stakes are just too high.”

Despite his persistent lead in the polls, Biden often has been an unsteady campaigner.

His campaign aides insist he and they are unconcerned about his frequent gaffes, but there is an attempt to prevent more of them — lest the occurrences spiral into a more threatening conversation about whether they’re becoming more common because of his age. (He will be 77 in three months.)

Asked Tuesday whether he had considered a one-term pledge — something that John McCain thought about in 2008 — as a way to dispel questions about his age, his answer was succinct: “No.”

Biden used a teleprompter in his appearance in the barn in Prole, even though his speech included many of the familiar lines he always delivers, and he often seemed to ignore it.

He had one at the next stop, too, although its limits were soon obvious: He suggested that the 1968 assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had occurred in the late 1970s. He seemed to correct the miscue but then suggested women wouldn’t remember the history.

“None of you women will know this, but a couple men may remember,” he said. “That was the time in the early late ’60s, the early ’60s and ’60s, where it was ‘Drop out, go to Haight-Ashbury, don’t get engaged, don’t trust anybody over 30.’ I mean, for real. What happened to them by the early ’70s, the late ’60s, there was a whole generation that said ‘Enough.’ The war in Vietnam was underway.”

While the clip made its rounds on social media, those who attended the event did not seem fazed.

“It would be difficult for anyone in this position to be perfect all the time,” said Dave Houge, a 67-year-old blacksmith from Grimes, Iowa.

“Most of the presidents have been old,” said Juli Jarecki, a 45-year-old vocational specialist from Waukee. “I don’t have a problem with it. It’s the ability to lead by example. With age comes wisdom.”

“His aren’t malicious gaffes,” said Frances Pottinger, a 71-year-old retired school administrator from West Des Moines. “He’s fine. If he’s making a gaffe, it’s not intentional.”

Whatever his rhetorical missteps, Biden at each stop makes the campaign about his standing as the candidate best equipped to beat the president. While he pleads for unity, in the country and in his party, he has sharpened some of his criticisms of Trump in recent days.

“Donald Trump inherited a growing economy from the Obama-Biden administration just like he inherited everything in his life,” he said. “And now he’s squandering it just like everything he’s inherited.”

But to the dismay of some Democrats, Biden seems to isolate Trump from the rest of the Republican Party, on the belief that if Trump is gone then Republicans will be ready to work with the opposing side.

“If we defeat Donald Trump . . . you’re going to see, as we say in southern Delaware, an altar call. You’re going to see people all of the sudden see the Lord,” Biden said Tuesday. “Because they’re not going to be able to be intimidated by a man who will be venal and go after them personally. I’m not promising you there will be a newfound kumbaya moment where everybody loves each other. But what’s broken is our politics, not the system.”

When Biden was asked Tuesday how badly he wants to be president, he did not say anything about himself — it was all about Trump.

“I think it’s really, really, really important that Donald Trump not be reelected,” he said, before listing a litany of problems with the current White House occupant. He raised his voice and jabbed his finger.

“Come on, man!” he said.

But why him?

“Things I’ve done my whole life,” he said. “I don’t know anybody who knows almost every other world leader. I don’t know there’s anybody who’s negotiated internationally like I have. I don’t know — there may be. And they may rise to the occasion. I’m not suggesting they’re not. They’re really good people. But I think at this moment in time, I’m the most qualified person to do it.”

“Could I die happily not having heard ‘Hail to the Chief’ play for me?” he asked. “Yeah. I could. That’s not why I’m running. The irony is the longer I’ve been around, the less that appeals to me. I’ve watched up close and personal what eight years in the White House is like. And I watched it. And it’s not something that I can hardly wait — to move in the White House. But I tell you what. I want to make those decisions because I think I can move the country in a direction that can set us on a path for the next 30 years to lead the world.”

Earlier, addressing reporters in the barn where about 100 people had listened to him speak, he was asked about the large crowds that some of his liberal rivals had been drawing.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.

When told that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) had drawn 12,000 the previous night in Minneapolis, he blanched but quickly recovered.

“I’m drawing as big of crowds — bigger than anybody,” he said. “Have you seen anybody draw bigger crowds than me here in this state?”

Repeatedly, reporters replied. Later he turned to the Fox News reporter who had posed the question.

“I know you’re going to go after me no matter what,” he said. “And it’s okay, it’s good. I’m a big boy. I can handle it. But you know, I mean, like, I notice, you didn’t ask me why I’m ahead in all the polls still. . . . I notice you don’t ask me those things — it’s okay. Because they don’t matter. Because this is in fact a marathon.”

But his campaign had just released an ad touting those polls, he was reminded. Should those be ignored as well, a reporter asked?

“You already do,” he said.