In this edition: Who's afraid of Joe Biden, who wants to nominate a mayor, and who's ahead in the Wisconsin primary?

Folks, Joe Biden literally said “this is not hyperbole” three times in a speech today, and this is The Trailer.

Midway through his speech to the United States Conference of Mayors, Joe Biden told his audience that he was in trouble. 

 “I read in the New York Times today that if I run for president, one of my problems will be that I like Republicans,” Biden said. He made the sign of the cross. “Bless me, father, for I have sinned.”

The story in question, by Alexander Burns, described an October 2018 visit to Michigan where Biden collected $200,000 to speak to a business group and praised Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) as “one of the finest guys I’ve ever worked with.”

The comment angered local Democrats, who came within five points of ousting Upton. The grumbling underlined a paradox of the 2020 Democratic primary: Even as Biden leads in speculative polls, even as some senior Democrats insist he could roll past President Trump, few in the party — including his rivals — are treating him like a front runner. No major candidate is waiting on Biden to decide; none of them believes he can clear the field.

If you compare Biden's on-paper strength to what we saw in the past few contests, it would make sense to call him a front-runner. The only serious poll of Iowa so far, December's Des Moines Register/CNN poll, put him at 32 percent in the first caucus state, 13 points ahead of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt). Every national poll of Democratic votes, which don't mean much at this stage but generate plenty of news, has put Biden on top. Polls testing him against the president consistently put him ahead.

So why isn't he treated like Hillary Clinton was, with potential rivals scurrying out of his shadow? In conversations this week, operatives working with most of the candidates already running for president offered a number of reasons. Some imagined that Biden could carve out a lane for himself; some speculated that he could collapse once a presidential bid moved from fantasy to reality.

This newsletter usually stays away from blind quotes, but the best way to capture a conversation that's happening all the time among Democrats was to let these operatives speak freely. In general, you can identify three reasons why they believe Biden, unlike previous front-runners, was not scaring anyone. These people are paid to elect somebody else, but this is the chatter happening when Democrats turn off the microphones.

Where's the grass-roots support? Multiple operatives described Biden as a genuinely beloved figure among Democratic voters but not one who had turned his popularity into a real network of support. He did not waste his time after leaving the White House: He wrote a memoir about his son Beau's death from cancer, he went on a multistate speaking tour, he launched a PAC, and he campaigned for dozens of Democrats, especially in places where other party figures were not terribly popular.

But he did not scare off Democrats by building, or letting his supporters build, a pre-campaign operation. There was some scoffing about “Ready for Hillary,” the 2013-2015 effort to organize potential supporters of the 2016 nominee, but it raised millions of dollars and hosted scores of events. During the “invisible primary” of the same period, Clinton and allies scouted for talent and communicated to those who weren't picked that it would be a mistake for their long-term plans, if they worked for someone else.

“People may have assumed she was heir apparent, but she got her campaign moving and started grabbing top staff,” one operative said. “That is not the case with the Biden people.”

Biden has also lagged some lower-polling candidates in the trackable metrics of enthusiasm. To cite just one: Sanders has 7.5 million followers on Facebook and Elizabeth Warren has 3.1 million, while Biden clocks in at 1.5 million. Sanders and Warren have used that network to launch legislative pressure campaigns and organize bustling campaign events; Biden has not.

“Just in neutral, technical terms, I don't think Biden's seen as being on the cutting edge of grass-roots organizing,” another operative said. “Traditionally, his base has been high-dollar donors.”

What’s his age again? This came up again and again: Biden would be the oldest nominee of any major party, and his nomination would set up a contest of two men in their late 70s, with implications that Biden's supporters have not seriously processed.

The idea that Biden would crack the Trump coalition with his appeal to white working-class voters was simply not flying with rival campaigns; they’d heard it about Hillary Clinton, who was seen as able to win back Democrats who'd left out of frustration with President Barack Obama. When they're exposed to the heat of a campaign, brands can hold strong, or they can melt.

“There’s been a fairly condescending notion from Democrats that to win back Trump voters you have to go in and look comfortable in white working-class communities,” one operative said. “That won’t pass in the Democratic Party anymore. If you try that, you’re going to hear ‘Hey, you voted to send our jobs overseas,’ and that’s right in Trump’s strike zone. He’s got some experience in nailing Democrats who voted for these trade deals.”

Several operatives also argued that Biden, despite two national elections at Obama's side, would struggle to excite the voters who were hardest to turn out. 

“We lost in 2016, and the largest single factor in that loss was that we coudln’t match our previous performance with the Obama coalition,” one of them said. “We couldn’t match the enthusiasm. That is a long-run problem — how does he inspire more enthusiasm than Hillary? Young black voters who fell off in 2016 weren't excited by Hillary, so how does Joe Biden fix that? Is it when people start talking about his votes against busing?” 

What about his gaffes? Speaking of those votes: Biden's potential rivals are extremely well aware of his long voting record, which put him on the record for everything from the antiabortion Hyde Amendment (now officially opposed by the Democratic platform) to crack/cocaine sentencing disparities to legislation that made it harder to declare bankruptcy. 

Talking points distributed by Biden allies say that he could run as a “progressive champion” who was “outspoken on LGBTQ rights even when every pundit around said that it was a political mistake.” His rivals point out that Biden would be the only Democrat who cast a vote in favor of a national ban on same-sex marriage, in 1996. Only one other potential candidate, Sanders, was in office that year.

“The question is whether voters let him play by a different set of rules or not,” said one operative. “I hear people bring Anita Hill up a lot, so it’ll be interesting to see how much apologizing he has to do. He does not start in a good position on women's rights. But he's in a better position to explain it than someone Democrats have never heard of.”

Unsurprisingly, the people working for other candidates think that Biden's framing for a potential campaign has put him in a weaker position. The Upton comment was one example of a Biden refrain: that he can get both parties to come to the table and cut deals on issues of obvious national importance.

“There's no reason that by 2025, we can't have most of our energy coming from renewables,” Biden said Thursday. “It's all within our grasp, but for special interests.” He recapped the implementation of the 2009 stimulus package by saying that it “required us to work together, because our backs were against the wall.” The reaction from rival campaigns: Which Republicans does he think the next president will have to deal with?

“The 'let’s hold hands and be bipartisan' shtick will not work,” one operative said.

Another operative was blunter: The Biden of Democrats' dreams was not the 76-year-old Biden who appeared on the stump. This might have been the simplest critique, and clearest argument for why other Democrats do not fear Biden. 

Who did the operatives worry about? Really, no one, and none were exactly glib about Biden's potential challenge. He had the ability, they said, to enter the race with massive national attention, with polls showing him well ahead of Trump, and with some Democrats quickly endorsing him. But after 2016, they simply were not afraid of front-runners.

AD WATCH

The Partnership for America’s Health Care Future, launched with some ballyhoo in December, is an all-hands effort by insurance and drug companies to suppress support for “Medicare-for-all” before it's too late. Efforts like this have been brutally effective in state elections, with hundreds of millions of dollars raining down to block health-care ballot measures.

The first national ad by the new group isn't inspiring many liberal nightmares. The length of a pop song, it tells the story of a health-care system that pretty much works as is but is too expensive for some people.

“Some people are proposing we start over and eliminate employer-provided insurance,” says a narrator. “Whether it’s called Medicare-for-all, single-payer or a public option, a one-size-fits-all health care system will mean all Americans have less control.”

We know that more is coming, as the Intercept scooped some of these internal plans in November. But roping the “public option” into the single-payer discussion, which worked for Republicans in 2010, is a tougher task now — it makes no changes to private plans whatsoever and has become the universal compromise position of the Democratic Party.

POLL WATCH

Who's your top choice among Democratic presidential candidates? (Marquette, 400 registered Wisconsin voters)

Joe Biden — 32%
Bernie Sanders — 23%
Elizabeth Warren — 15%
Beto O'Rourke — 12%
Cory Booker — 8%
Kamala Harris — 8%
Amy Klobuchar — 5%
Julián Castro — 4%

The Wisconsin primary falls in the middle of the nominating process, usually boiling down to a do-or-die choice between two candidates. It's highly unlikely that the ballot, next year, will include every name on this list. What's interesting is how much room for growth there could be for lesser-known candidates. More than 90 percent of Democrats start with opinions of Biden and Sanders and 70 percent start with an opinion of Warren. A majority of Wisconsin Democrats have no opinion, right now, on the rest of that field.

Who do you think is mostly responsible for the partial shutdown of the federal government? (Fox News, 1,008 registered voters)

President Trump — 51%
Republicans in Congress — 3%
Democrats in Congress — 34%
All — 9%

Another day, another clear majority of voters putting shutdown blame on the president. There has been no shift in these numbers since the shutdown began; the president's only comment on shutdown polling has been to refer to a crosstab in one poll that suggested Latino voters were moving his way since last year. (This was probably a small sampling error.)

ON THE TRAIL

Have you hugged a mayor today? It wasn’t planned this way, but the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting came to Washington at a narratively ideal time: the point in the government shutdown when the city began to ask whether it would ever end.

“If we ever shut down the government over a policy dispute, we’d be run out of town on a rail,” said South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg at a news conference Wednesday.

“America right now is crying out for leadership, leadership I know exists in this room,” said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti in a Thursday speech. “It's time to demand that Washington follow our lead, instead of the other way around.”

Garcetti, who has not declared anything about 2020 but has made several trips to primary states, came to the meeting with a story to tell. A six-day teachers’ strike ended with a 6 percent raise and a commitment to shrinking class sizes, most of what the unions had wanted.

“I have a good relationship with the school district and the union knows me and trusts me, so it seemed clear that I could do things other people weren’t able to do,” Garcetti told the New York Times.

The mayoral pitch, which we’re going to hear more and more this year, has an advantage over a pitch from any other sort of Democrat: It is a story of endless building, compromises and success. Most mayors who’ve taken office since 2010 have presided over economic growth; the controversies that can dog them, starting with accusations that gentrification and big businesses are benefiting the most from the economy, are overwhelmed by stories about how well these mayors know their communities.

“I’m running because of Los Angeles — if I run,” Garcetti said at a Thursday news conference. “I’m running because I can accelerate [the work we’re doing] on homelessness. I’m running because I can accelerate the work we’re doing on the environment. It would be a positive thing for my city.”

Buttigieg and Garcetti are two of four mayors who are either in the race, seriously considering it, or confusing people by not ruling it out. The latter two, Mike Bloomberg and Bill de Blasio, are political rivals with an incredibly similar pitch: If you doubt that the country can work again, come to New York.

“We balance our budgets, we save for a rainy day, and then we get handed this shutdown!” de Blasio said. 

From the back of the room, something was hard not to notice: When members of the Trump administration arrived to speak to a bipartisan group of mayors, they did not mention the shutdown. And they got very little applause.

At the conference, every mayoral pitch overlapped: Mayors were into negotiation, not brinkmanship. Another common thread: No one can ever again say that a job less weighty than governor or senator was too little experience for the presidency.

“No Queens-born developer had just been elected straight from TV, as a reality star, and then one was,” Garcetti said.

2020

Larry Hogan. He has welcomed, for the first time, chatter about potentially running for president; he told reporters today that both the president and the speaker of the House were to blame for the shutdown and its theatrics. “Let’s figure out border security, and let’s get people to work, and let’s let the State of the Union take place like it always does,” he said. Worth noting: That's largely the Democratic plan, not the Republican one.

Michael Bennet. The senator from Colorado isn’t discussed much as a presidential candidate, but he has been poking around, and Thursday he had the first semi-viral moment of his career, raging from the Senate floor at Sen. Ted Cruz over the Texan’s role in the 2013 shutdown.

Mike Bloomberg. He’ll talk to Virginia Democrats on Friday morning, then spend next Tuesday crisscrossing New Hampshire.

Terry McAuliffe. The former Virginia governor set a March 31 date for an announcement on his 2020 plans, whether he runs or not.

Sherrod Brown. He's filling in his “dignity of work” tour schedule now, with a Jan. 30 kickoff in Cleveland followed by a substantial trip around Iowa, and a Feb. 8 visit to New Hampshire.

Elizabeth Warren. As first reported by The Post's Jeff Stein, she will unveil a plan with a new tax  on Americans with more than $50 million in assets.

 

READING LIST

"Seeing fatal flaws in every Democratic candidate for president? You’ve got Pundititis,” by Ben Terris

Traumatized by 2016, only slightly healed by 2018, Democratic primary voters are still not sure what to think about electability, except to worry about it.

“The unfinished business of Bernie Sanders,” by Jason Zengerle

A look inside the senator's head as he has considered whether to run for president or not, a question that he approaches differently (though not too differently) whenever it is asked.

“The young left's anti-capitalist manifesto,” by Clare Malone

The incredible thing about the movement in the Democratic Party's left flank is how few people are pushing it and how young they are.

COUNTDOWN

... one day until the RNC reaffirms its support for the president
... five does until the State of the Union address probably doesn't happen
... six days until Sherrod Brown's "dignity of work" event in Cleveland