Bi­den seeks bounce back with ex­tended Iowa tour

’20 hope­ful looks to show ap­peal, strengthen sup­port

Baltimore Sun - - NATION & WORLD - By Alexan­dra Jaffe and Bill Barrow

DES MOINES, Iowa — Joe Bi­den’s eight-day bus tour across Iowa comes with a mes­sage: Re­ports of his demise in the nation’s first pres­i­den­tial cau­cus state have been greatly ex­ag­ger­ated.

Bi­den’s aides ac­knowl­edge he must sharpen his pitch be­fore the Feb. 3 cau­cuses that launch Democrats’ 2020 vot­ing. Yet the former vice pres­i­dent’s ad­vis­ers re­ject any char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of the 18-county swing that ends Satur­day as a cam­paign re­set, even with polls show­ing that Bi­den’s stand­ing in Iowa has slipped in re­cent months.

They frame the trip as an ef­fort to demon­strate wide ap­peal and harden sup­port across a Demo­cratic elec­torate whose top pri­or­ity is de­feat­ing Pres­i­dent Donald Trump. Con­ver­sa­tions with ad­vis­ers and sup­port­ers re­veal a quiet con­fi­dence that the 77-year-old can­di­date retains broad sup­port and is well-si­t­u­ated to re­cover lost ground.

“As peo­ple get closer and closer to Fe­bru­ary, they be­come more and more prac­ti­cal about this,” said former Iowa Gov. Tom Vil­sack, who re­cently gave Bi­den his most high-pro­file Iowa en­dorse­ment yet. “He can make the strong­est case, among all the can­di­dates, that he is in a po­si­tion to get things done, and he is in a po­si­tion to win.”

Iowa polls sug­gest that Bi­den, while a front-run­ner na­tion­ally, is in a jumble near the top. South Bend, In­di­ana, Mayor Pete But­tigieg ap­pears to hold a nar­row edge over Bi­den and Mas­sachusetts Sen. El­iz­a­beth War­ren, 70, and Ver­mont Sen. Bernie San­ders, 78. The sen­a­tors have an­i­mated the party’s left flank, while the 37-year-old But­tigieg joins Bi­den in Democrats’ mod­er­ate wing but is call­ing for gen­er­a­tional change.

In south­east Iowa, the state party’s Ru­ral Cau­cus vice chair­man says Bi­den’s foot­print isn’t vis­i­ble. “I know the names of the peo­ple who are sup­port­ing var­i­ous other can­di­dates,” Glenn Hurst said. “But in terms of peo­ple out there knock­ing on doors, who at­tend other cam­paign events, district events, I can’t name a mem­ber of the south­east Iowa Democrats who’s sup­port­ing Joe Bi­den.”

Bi­den’s na­tional staff has fu­eled skep­ti­cal as­sess­ments with pro­nounce­ments that he doesn’t have to win Iowa to win the nom­i­na­tion. Iowa is over­whelm­ingly white; Bi­den’s na­tional ad­van­tage leans heav­ily on non­white vot­ers who help de­ter­mine out­comes in Ne­vada, South Carolina and many March 3 Su­per Tues­day states.

Yet all the hand-wring­ing misses key vari­ables in Iowa, ac­cord­ing to Vil­sack and other Bi­den sup­port­ers.

They con­tend that, pub­lic en­thu­si­asm aside, Bi­den has the broad­est range of sup­port both de­mo­graph­i­cally and ge­o­graph­i­cally, es­pe­cially in ru­ral and small­town Iowa and among the grow­ing mi­nor­ity pop­u­la­tion that, while small, could prove im­por­tant with so many can­di­dates di­vid­ing the over­all cau­cus vote. Those Bi­den or­ga­niz­ers that get so much crit­i­cism, the cam­paign says, spend their days not with lo­cal party of­fi­cials, but with vol­un­teers knock­ing on doors and mak­ing calls. Their fo­cus: re­li­able cau­cus par­tic­i­pants, plus dis­af­fected Repub­li­cans and in­de­pen­dents.

“The me­dia seems to have picked up this nar­ra­tive that the Bi­den cam­paign is not do­ing well or not as well as it should,” said long­time party ac­tivist and Bi­den sup­porter Phyl­lis Hughes Ewing. “I’m on the phones with vot­ers two nights a week for sev­eral hours at a pop. I’m a boot on the ground, and that’s not what I’m see­ing.”

Col­lec­tively, it’s a wide-net strat­egy the cam­paign pre­dicts will yield a sur­pris­ing del­e­gate haul from Iowa’s com­plex cau­cus process.

The bullish­ness starts with the vi­a­bil­ity thresh­old re­quir­ing can­di­dates to get 15% sup­port in a given precinct to have votes counted to­ward del­e­gates. Bi­den’s team be­lieves he’ll be vi­able in ev­ery one of the 1,679 precincts on cau­cus night, a reach even other lead­ing can­di­dates may not match. Then, they be­lieve Bi­den will be a top ben­e­fi­ciary of “re­align­ment” votes — sub­se­quent bal­lots that al­low vot­ers who sup­ported a non­vi­able can­di­date to choose an­other who’s still stand­ing.

Two other key Demo­cratic con­stituen­cies also are in play in Iowa: or­ga­nized la­bor and mi­nor­ity vot­ers.

Bi­den has won the en­dorse­ment of the In­ter­na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Fire

Fight­ers , and the or­ga­ni­za­tion al­ready has tapped its lo­cals across the state to can­vass. “We un­der­stand what needs to be done to get peo­ple out to cau­cus,” said Harold Schait­berger, the union’s na­tional pres­i­dent, ad­ding that he al­ready has rep­re­sen­ta­tives on the ground and will have or­ga­niz­ers in precincts across the state on cau­cus night.

For mi­nor­ity out­reach, the cam­paign re­cently hired state Rep. Ras Smith, a mem­ber of the Leg­is­la­ture’s Black Cau­cus. The cam­paign also is mak­ing an ag­gres­sive play for Latino vot­ers, with more than a dozen bilin­gual or­ga­niz­ers.

CHAR­LIE NEIBERGALL/AP

Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Joe Bi­den and his wife, Jill Bi­den, ar­rive at a meet­ing Sun­day, in Car­roll, Iowa. The former vice pres­i­dent is on an eight-day bus tour of the state.

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