The day culminated hours later when Biden, striking a different tone aboard his campaign bus, unloaded with a searing critique of his rivals and the media covering his candidacy.
He ridiculed claims that voters were more excited about Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), saying bluntly, “Tell me where this great enthusiasm is manifesting itself.” And he said Pete Buttigieg, the small-city mayor 40 years Biden’s junior, “flat-out stole” his health-care plan — a move, Biden insisted, the press would never have let the former vice president get away with.
“What would you have done to me? Torn my ears off. Absolutely. I’d be a plagiarizing, no-good old man,” Biden told reporters, seeming to allude, in one sentence, to the plagiarism scandal that derailed his 1988 presidential bid and the nagging questions this time about his age.
The “No Malarkey” tour, which continues through Saturday, is intended as a show of stamina for Biden, 77, who has fallen behind in early state polls after some shaky debate performances and rising concerns about his strength as a candidate. In Iowa, where the all-important caucuses are less than two months away, Biden was the acknowledged leader when he entered the race in April — but now he trails Buttigieg and has been locked in a tight race with Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
Then, in stop after stop this week, Biden sought to pump new life into his campaign. He has told voters who braved freezing temperatures and icy roads that he is the most palatable option for a diverse coalition of Democrats, and that he is the best choice to woo Republicans and independents wary of President Trump. His crowds have been small and low-key, a contrast to the more energetic events orchestrated by his competitors, but they present a chance, according to Biden’s team, to truly connect with voters in an intimate way that has long been his strong suit.
“I’m going to say something that I believe to be self-serving, and maybe it is,” Biden told voters in Emmetsburg, Iowa, on Monday. “In all those states we have to win, I do pretty well. . . . So, folks, I believe I can beat Donald Trump. I believe we will beat Donald Trump. I believe Donald Trump believes I will beat Donald Trump.”
Venting his anger
But the tour has also at times served as a bit of a release valve for weeks of seemingly pent-up frustration.
After stumbling in 1988, Biden endured another failed White House bid 20 years later when his 2008 candidacy was overshadowed by the electrifying primary battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. And now Biden has been unable to put away opponents with shorter résumés and, in his view, a lesser chance of defeating Trump.
On Monday, as Biden’s caravan traveled from a stop in northern Iowa to the airport, where he was jetting off for an evening of fundraising in New York before resuming the tour, he invited a group of reporters onto the bus for an unusually expansive conversation. At times, the exchange felt more like an airing of grievances, with Biden waving off staff members who noted he was going over the 30-minute agreed-upon time limit.
“Look at the polling everywhere,” he said in response to a question about Warren. “Tell me where this great enthusiasm is manifesting itself. She lives in Massachusetts. She’s advertising millions and millions in New Hampshire. Why shouldn’t she be known there?”
When it was pointed out that thousands of Warren supporters had come to see the senator recently in Chicago, he became incredulous.
“Chicago. Oh, great, a great showing in Chicago. Look, guys, you always want to give me numbers but never want to apply numbers to them.”
He said the media’s bias toward Warren was evident as she shifted her stance on Medicare-for-all. Warren had embraced the single-payer plan trumpeted by Sanders. But last month, she pivoted to a more centrist idea: delaying the implementation of Medicare-for-all by three years. In the interim, health-care consumers could opt in to a government plan. But Biden said the media didn’t fully interrogate Warren about how much her initial Medicare-for-all plan would cost.
“How many times did the press ask how much it will cost,” Biden said. “She never answered, because you kept talking about how she’s rising.”
The electability argument
Biden said he felt he’d been fighting against another hurdle: the perception that he was too moderate for a Democratic Party that had become more liberal following Clinton’s loss to Trump in 2016.
“What happened after Hillary. [People said,] ‘Guess what, man, the party has turned so far left. So far left, man. And you just can’t win, no one can possibly win, not in that lane.’ Now, and I was the one, remember all the debates in the beginning, ‘Biden is the moderate. Biden’s not progressive enough.’ ”
But now, he noted, other candidates have embraced a more moderate view on health care — adopting what he called the “Biden plan,” preserving the Affordable Care Act and giving the public an option to join a government program.
“I said it then, I’ll say it again, Medicare-for-all ain’t going anywhere, period, because there’s a thing called truth in getting there,” Biden said.
The “No Malarkey” theme, emblazoned in big white letters spread across Biden’s blue motor coach, comes from one of Biden’s favorite expressions. It’s another way of saying “straight talk,” which became the calling card for similar bus caravans that helped define the political brand of a longtime Biden friend, the late Republican Sen. John McCain.
The tour is an attempt to form connections with a larger swath of Iowans, particularly in rural areas, Biden said. It stretches through eight days and more than 660 miles.
At times early on, Biden sounded hoarse or dabbed at his nose during a taxing long weekend of town halls and small-town pit stops. Staffers kept a glass of water tucked near any lectern where he was speaking. His speeches were short by Biden standards, around 20 minutes or so per stop, a move he said gave him ample time to talk with anyone who stayed after but also offered some respite for his vocal cords.
Biden and his surrogates — he spent the first part of the tour traveling with former U.S. agriculture secretary and Iowa governor Tom Vilsack and his wife, Christie — have argued that Biden is beating Trump head-to-head in battleground states that could decide the election. Iowa Democrats, they said, should consider those numbers when deciding which potential nominee could attract general election voters in key states.
“What about the people who aren’t as involved in politics? What about the independents? Who are they going to trust as well?” Christie Vilsack asked voters in Spencer on Sunday night. “The election is going to be won in the middle. And I want to make sure that I choose the person who’s most electable to the widest group of people.”
Some voters who came to see Biden along the tour acknowledged a concern that a more liberal nominee seemed like a risky bet in the general election.
“I hear a lot of people saying we need to take this . . . swat to the left, and I just don’t agree with that,” said Travis Halm, 29, of Council Bluffs, who came out to see the kickoff to Biden’s bus tour. “We can have a contest about who’s more liberal or who’s more progressive if we want, but it’s not going to do us any good if we’re sitting around sulking on November 4 after losing an election.”
Bob Seggerman, a registered Republican who voted for Trump and plans to do so again in 2020, got talked into coming to an event at a church-turned-restaurant in Spencer by some of his friends who are Democrats.
“I think [Biden has] got a softer appeal that’s more empathetic, and I like him more than the other Democrats,” he said. But, added Seggerman, who at 67 is a decade younger than Biden: “The only thing is, I look at the age of this man. A person who gets to be a certain age is ready to do just about anything but be president.”
On the stump, Biden told voters that Trump’s America had failed middle-class and rural communities like the ones he was visiting on his bus tour. There were also lighter moments, like the widely mocked and memed image of Biden nibbling on his wife’s finger during her opening speech. Mostly, though, he stressed that he would bring a steady hand to the nation’s highest office and foreign policy, and that he’d put middle-class values first.
“I think we have to very deeply restore the backbone of this country, and by that I mean the middle class,” he said.
The tour underscored how Iowa remains vital to Biden’s hopes of winning the nomination. He has vowed to visit all 99 counties during the campaign, though even after the barnstorming trip, he will only have been to about a third. A weak showing in the Feb. 3 caucuses could affect his strength in two other early voting states — South Carolina, where he holds a big lead among that state’s large African American electorate, and Nevada, where he says he has strong Hispanic backing. If he survives there, another threat looms in early March, when the race turns to multiple big states in a Super Tuesday showdown where former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg plans to make his stand.
'Still well in the game'
Biden, in his session with reporters, offered his analysis of the road ahead — all but conceding a potential Iowa defeat but insisting that he alone can rebuild the multiethnic coalition that propelled Obama.
“If I were to come in like some of the polling has shown, you know, like, five points behind, three points behind or seven points behind, I think I survive.” he said. “I think I do well, because of the depth of the support that I have in the African American [and] Latino community, and there’s not anybody so far that has risen to the point where they can all of a sudden everybody in the community can say, ‘Whoa. Wait a minute.’ Well, there is nobody else that’s in there that’s in a position to do what Barack was able to do.
“I just think that we’re in, I think even if we didn’t do well in Iowa, we’re still well in the game in terms of where we are beyond Super Tuesday, where we’ll be in South Carolina and Nevada. I feel confident about both of those and I don’t see something fundamentally shifting. The reason why it’s so important, if the reverse happens, if I were to come in here and win this Iowa going away and then do well in New Hampshire, then what stops it but me?”