DES MOINES — The biggest storyline from Iowa may end up being about the moderates who took down Joe Biden.
The former vice president was the front-runner going into the Democratic primary, leading nationally, in Iowa and across other early-voting states. That would make a fourth place or otherwise lackluster result in the Monday caucuses all the more devastating to a campaign pitched on the theory of electability.
“He’s a great guy, a great patriot, a great ambassador for our country, and I just don’t think he has the chops anymore,” said Val Horvat, a Bettendorf, Iowa, native.
Horvat, 62, was at a rally for Sen. Amy Klobuchar in her hometown with her friend Kitty McAndrews, both trying to make up their minds between the Minnesota senator and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg. They were looking for a moderate candidate who can win — but they’d ruled out Biden entirely.
“The thought of Joe on a debate stage head-to-head against Trump makes me cringe,” she said. “I just don’t think he has the quickness, I just don’t think he’s as articulate as he used to be. He’s a great guy, but it’s a vicious, vicious process, and I don’t think he has the astuteness anymore.”
“Joe bumbles too much. I think Trump would chew him up,” she added.
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Moderates shop Klobuchar, Buttigieg
Voters and the national press have spent the last few months questioning Biden’s age, aptitude, and, yes, President Trump’s relentless inquisition into Biden’s son’s business dealings in Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Klobuchar, Buttigieg, and a cast of tertiary candidates methodically wooed people who would otherwise be Biden die-hards, especially in places like Bettendorf and other less populous or rural areas of the state where Biden’s centrist message resonates.
Linda McCoy, a retired office worker from Cedar Rapids, said Biden had been at the top of her list, but after seeing Klobuchar speak on Sunday, she was “leaning pretty close to this gal.” The appeal of a younger candidate who still scratches her itch for a center-left nominee paired with attacks from Republicans about Hunter Biden’s job on the board of a Ukranian gas company made her second-guess her former No. 1.
“Part of it is an age issue. I’ve heard that he will not run for a second term. We don’t want to have to do this again in four years,” she said. “And I don’t know, you know, there’s been so much negative press against Biden that he may never make the cut.”
The dispersion of moderate-minded votes across several candidates has led to what could be an indecipherable bunch-up for second, third and fourth place — or worse yet, a clear loss for Biden. Sen. Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, has in many ways consolidated a bloc of progressive support that has lifted him to first place in most of the recent polls.
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Biden’s team has been trying to make the argument that those worried about a Sanders victory should consolidate behind Biden. In some cases, it has worked: They’ve recruited a group of former Beto O’Rourke supporters, for instance, who jokingly call themselves the “Cauc Blockers,” and go door-to-door for Biden to try to stop Sanders’ momentum.
But for many others, it’s clear that argument hasn’t worked.
Susan Webster, a Des Moines-based retiree, appeared in a Super PAC-funded an attack ad airing in Iowa that questioned whether Sanders’ positions were too extreme and whether his recent heart attack should make him unelectable. But she’d committed to caucus for Klobuchar and was considering an alliance with Steyer voters where they band together behind just one of the two in each precinct so they can get enough support to walk away with some delegates in at least one precinct each.
“I’m conflicted with people who are now supporting Biden, you know, just saying that we’ve got to pull it together, just get behind Biden no matter what so we beat Bernie,” she said.
The prospect of no clear front-runner could drag the moderate clump across New Hampshire and Nevada, further damaging Biden’s chance to make a resounding victory statement and further puncturing the idea that he is the most electable candidate — a hard argument to make without an actual victory.
That may be why Biden’s team has in recent weeks begun to set expectations lower, while heavy-handedly reminding voters and the press that Biden is far and away the front-runner in South Carolina on the strength of his deep support among older African-American voters.
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“I’m comfortable with saying that I think he needs to be competitive here, and so I think a top three or four finish.”
“I disagree with the narrative that he has to win here to create a viable path forward,” said Biden surrogate and South Carolina State Rep. Marvin Pendarvis on a recent tour of Iowa. “I’m comfortable with saying that I think he needs to be competitive here, and so I think a top three or four finish would certainly signal to the rest of the country and give us the momentum we need to go into the rest of the primaries.”
But even in South Carolina, a recent poll has shown Sanders and businessman Tom Steyer hot on Biden’s trail. Sanders has narrowed the gap in the Super Tuesday voting state of Texas. Recent polls out of California have shown Biden falling behind Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
Settling for Joe
Still, there’s always the hope among Biden supporters that even voters ready to move on will have to settle for him, eventually. Caucus rules mandate that a candidate has to have support from 15% of the caucusgoers in any given precinct to stay viable in that precinct. So if the Klobuchars, Buttigieges, Steyers and all the rest fall flat, there’s always good old reliable Joe.
Jan Mishek, 68, completely fell for Buttigieg after the Polk County Steak Fry, she said after a 2,000-plus-person Mayor Pete rally in her native Des Moines on Sunday.
“He captured my heart that day and just kept it,” she said. “I think we need to tap into the youth of America. … Young people supported him and he’s young. There was energy, it was unbelievable energy.”
But on the off-chance he won’t be viable, she’s ready for Biden.
“I never thought I would be there, because Joe, I didn’t even want him to get in it,” she said. “But Joe Biden has a lot of respect and merits and I think he’s done well, and I was a super, super Barack Obama person. I still have the Obama-Biden sticker on my car, so I figured, well, I’m halfway there!”
Cameron Joseph contributed to this report.
Cover: Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden carries a pizza box before speaking at a stop event in Des Moines, Iowa on February 3, 2020. (Photo by KEREM YUCEL/AFP via Getty Images)
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