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Trump is trying to turn Biden’s gaffes into a major liability

The Washington Post’s Matt Viser analyzes a string of recent gaffes by Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and what they might mean in 2020. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Joe Biden’s verbal miscues have always been part of his charm, baked into his reputation as a plain-spoken politician who delivers impossible-to-diagram sentences and whose rhetorical flourishes can quickly veer off course.

But now, that habit is colliding with a much more damaging narrative pushed aggressively by President Trump and nagging at some of Biden’s fellow Democrats: that he is a man past his prime.

“He walked into a trap you could see 100 yards away,” said Grant Woodard, an attorney and longtime Iowa Democratic consultant unaligned with a candidate. “It does directly call into question people’s concerns: Should you really be the front-runner? Are you really electable?”

Bravado or belligerent, it’s Joe Biden’s response to nearly everything: ‘C’mon, man!’

Over the last few days, Biden has made a string of small missteps while campaigning during a crucial stretch in Iowa. He said the most recent mass shootings occurred in Houston and Michigan, although they actually took place in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio.

He has bungled oft-repeated lines, saying “truth over facts” rather than truth over lies. He referred to Margaret Thatcher instead of the more recent British prime minister Theresa May, and he referenced the Constitution’s First Amendment when he meant the Second.

He said that “poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids” before quickly adding “wealthy kids, black kids, Asian kids.” He spoke of meeting with Parkland students when he was vice president, even though the Florida school shooting occurred a year after he left office. (His campaign clarified that he was referring to students from Newtown, Conn.; he had met with the Parkland students, but not as vice president.)

On their own, none of these mistakes significantly alter the race; Biden remains the poll leader. Some say the gaffes pale in comparison to things Trump says.

“President Trump consistently makes statements which question his moral authority or intellectual capability,” said Stephen Frantzich, author of the book “Observing Our Politicians Stumble: The Worst Candidate Gaffes and Recoveries in Presidential Campaigns.”

The Trump political era, he added, may have changed the prism through which traditional verbal missteps are viewed.

“Our whole public debate has coarsened,” Frantzich said. “And that perhaps may let Biden off the hook a little bit more. But I don’t see any of his gaffes, at least his recent gaffes, as being so egregious as some of the things Trump did and said as a candidate.

That hasn’t stopped Trump and his allies from seizing on Biden’s comments.

“Joe Biden has truly lost his fastball,” Trump told reporters last Wednesday.

On Friday, he said “Joe is not playing with a full deck” and that “something’s going wrong with him.”

And Saturday, Trump tweeted that “Joe doesn’t have a clue!” and questioned whether he “is mentally fit to be president.”

On Friday, Biden said he had no response to Trump’s attack. When asked if it offered a preview of what a general-election matchup might look like, he paused.

“Let’s get through the primary,” he said.

Biden supporters argue that the gaffes are not a sign of his age, pointing to a well-documented history of misspeaking. The first day of his 2008 presidential campaign was dominated by his comment that Obama was “the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.”

When Obama was preparing to sign the health-care law, he leaned over and said, “This is a big [expletive] deal.”

“Joe Biden isn’t overly packaged or poll-tested, and that’s why voters love him,” said TJ Ducklo, a campaign spokesman. “He has always spoken his mind, and that isn’t changing because he’s running for president or because of how the press chooses to cover him.”

Biden allies say, too, that President Trump has a long history of strange or offensive statements, causing some to question the 73-year-old president’s own mental fitness and suitability for office.

Like Biden, Trump incorrectly stated where one of the mass shootings took place, saying Toledo instead of Dayton. Unlike Biden, Trump has claimed that wind turbines cause cancer, peddles conspiracy theories and racism, and regularly misspells common words both online and in black marker for spoken remarks.

During a speech on Independence Day, Trump said that during the American Revolution, troops “took over the airports.”

“I am a gaffe machine,” Biden said last year. “But, my God, what a wonderful thing compared to a guy who can’t tell the truth.”

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Gaffes have always been a part of the political conversation. But not all mistakes are created equal.

The most damaging are those that fit into a wider belief about a candidate.

“The challenge with mistakes, small or big, is when they play into what a candidate’s perceived vulnerabilities are,” said Jen Psaki, a longtime Democratic consultant who worked in the Obama administration. “Does it play into this building perception or criticism that Biden is not up to the task?”

“Ten years ago,” she added, “nobody would have asked that question.”

Mitt Romney’s comment that “corporations are people too, my friend” fed the narrative that he was an out-of-touch plutocrat. John F. Kerry’s comment that he voted for the Iraq War before he voted against it perfectly encapsulated the idea that he was a flip-flopper.

Gov. Rick Perry’s “oops” moment solidified an impression he was less intelligent than his political rivals.

“A campaign has to decide: Is this fundamentally going to alter the decisions of those who haven’t made up their mind?” said Kevin Madden, a Republican consultant who was a top adviser to Romney, whose stumbles during a 2012 foreign trip became such a dominant theme that it resulted in a memorably shouted question: “Governor, what about your gaffes?”

“Trump sort of inured the national electorate to these moments,” he added. “There used to be one a month. Now it feels like there are five a day. It has the potential effect of minimizing it to just partisan noise.”

Biden is also not alone among the current field of Democrats who have committed such mistakes.

Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) said a few years ago on the Senate floor that, when he got his driver’s license at 17, he drove to Hawaii. (After another senator pointed out that there was no way to reach the island by car, Booker laughed and conceded the point.)

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) said in April that there were two coequal branches of government, naming Congress and the White House and forgetting about the judicial system. Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) thought in 2016 that New Yorkers still used tokens to ride the subway, even though they expired 13 years earlier.

Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) on Sunday tweeted “Finally got my pork chop!” and then, less than two hours later, tweeted a greeting to all Muslims breaking their fast (Muslims don’t eat pork).

Toluse Olorunnipa in Bedminster, N.J., contributed to this report.