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Biden And 2020: Do Voters Want Experience, A Fresh Face Or Just A Trump Beater?

Former Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden arrives...

Credit: Associated Press

Above: Former Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden arrives at the Wilmington train station Thursday April 25, 2019.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, hoping to build on his working-class roots and decades-old reputation as a caring and empathetic public servant, announced today that he's running for president in 2020.

In a video announcement, Biden called the upcoming election a "battle for the soul of this nation." The video focused on a 2017 white supremacist protest in Charlottesville, Virginia. He cited President Trump's response that there were "very fine people on both sides" after a counterprotester was killed by a man who plowed his car into a group of people rallying against white nationalists.

"In that moment, I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I had ever seen in my lifetime," Biden said.

"I believe history will look back on four years of this president and all he embraces as an aberrant moment in time," Biden said. "But if we give Donald Trump eight years in the White House, he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation, who we are, and I cannot stand by and watch that happen."

As President Barack Obama's loyal vice president for eight years, Biden brings high name recognition and generally positive approval ratings into a Democratic nomination contest that is the most diverse and crowded field ever. The question he'll have to answer is whether his time has passed, as voters consider a field that includes three men half Biden's age, five women and several candidates of color.

Biden, who is 76 now and would be the oldest person ever elected president of the United States, is counting on voters wanting a familiar, experienced "grown-up" who can win back the kinds of voters Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump in states like Wisconsin, Michigan and his native Pennsylvania.

He snagged a major California endorsement months before he even announced, when Sen. Dianne Feinstein told reporters in January, “I’ve seen him operate. I’ve seen him perform and I think he brings a level of experience and seniority, which I think is really important.”

It was a not-so-subtle slap at fellow California U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, who is also making a presidential bid — and whose style and philosophy are less in line with Feinstein's than Biden's is.

Feinstein and Barbara Boxer were elected to the U.S. Senate in 1992, the so-called "Year of the Woman," after the Judiciary Committee — chaired by Biden and with no female members — appeared by some to give short shrift to Anita Hill's allegations of sexual harassment by her former boss, current U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Boxer, while not endorsing anyone in the race yet, told KQED she thought Biden "took it as far as he could" as chairman of the Judiciary Committee. "I think what's important is what he did after," Boxer said, by adding two female senators to the committee. "He really was a champion for women over the years. Women's groups counted on him."

Of polls showing Biden the leading choice of Democrats in California, campaign consultant Katie Merrill predicted that his "first day will probably be his best day in this race."

"And then, I think after that, it's unlikely that he will, over the month, stay in first place," she added.

Merrill, who is not working for any of the presidential candidates, said Biden's numbers are a reflection of name ID, adding that Biden simply doesn't have the campaign infrastructure to compete.

"Campaigns have changed so much since he last ran (in 2008)," Merrill said. "The presidential candidates are raising money over the internet from primarily small donors. That means having cultivated email lists with hundreds of thousands of people on those lists. And the Biden campaign just doesn't have that kind of infrastructure. I do think, in addition, the Democratic voters are looking for generational change, which disadvantages both Biden and (Vermont Sen. Bernie) Sanders."

Merrill cited the rising popularity of 37-year-old South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg as evidence that voters are looking for fresh faces.

Getting in so late — the first caucus in Iowa is a little more than nine months away — Biden also faces the challenge of building a team of experienced advisers to help him navigate the treacherous waters of the Democratic primary.

And yet, Biden has developed a deep reservoir of goodwill forged during decades in the U.S. Senate and eight years as Barack Obama's vice president.

"I think he can really build relationships," said Carl Guardino, president and CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group. He said whenever tech leaders met with Biden, they knew they had someone who understood the issues most important to them.

"Like immigration and trade and tariffs. There were just so many issues that we knew not only was he hearing us, but he was championing the innovation economy on core issues," Guardino said.

Biden also has deep ties to organized labor and, according to California Labor Federation spokesman Steve Smith, he understands bread-and-butter issues of interest to rank-and-file voters.

"He's from Scranton (Pennsylvania) and he knows how to speak the language," Smith said. "He'll be a strong contender for labor endorsements, but I don't think unions will be rushing to pick a candidate this early."

In addition, Biden isn't the only one who appeals to organized labor. So do Senators Harris, Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, all of whom are slightly to Biden's left on economic issues.

Biden's decades of experience in the political arena is both a blessing and a curse. With the activist wing of the Democratic Party drifting to the left of the political spectrum, Biden will have to answer for past statements against busing to integrate schools, his handling of the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and votes for tough-on-crime legislation that many now think disproportionately hurt people of color, especially men.

One of Biden's strengths — his ability to viscerally connect with voters — has already become a potential liability in this MeToo era, where powerful men accused of sexual harassment or assault have seen a precipitous fall from grace.

After several women came forward accusing Biden of unwanted physical attention, Biden first issued an amateurish-looking video explaining himself and then made awkward public comments where he joked about the issue.

And yet according to a recent Quinnipiac University Poll, voters don't seem to take those allegations too seriously.

"The numbers are overwhelmingly in favor of Biden in the sense that people are not terribly troubled by his tactile behavior and aren't creeped out by it," said Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll. "I mean women even more so than men. So it's pretty much a non-issue, at least in California."

That poll showed Biden as the top choice of Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters with 26 percent support, followed by Sanders at 18 percent and Harris with 17 percent.

Two-thirds of voters, including 67 percent of women, said the controversy over Biden's unwanted touching was "not a problem."

"This is tough," said lobbyist Adama Iwu, co-founder of We Said Enough, which blew the whistle on the culture of sexual harassment in and around the state Capitol. "It's not like no one thinks this is an issue," she added after that poll came out, "but there's also a spectrum of things ... and he falls on the 'uncomfortable interactions' side of it."

"It's not like people are saying 'we like Biden no matter what,' " Iwu also noted. "What they're saying is, 'He can beat Trump.' "

Of course, polls taken this far before an election are of very limited value. As voters assess each of the 20 or so candidates and donors place their bets, the field will surely be winnowed down before any votes are cast next year. But at this early point at least, Biden will command tremendous media attention as he makes his third run to win the White House.

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