Just six weeks into his presidential campaign, Joe Biden is running as the Democrat to beat, charting a distinct path through the primary states, taking positions that may rile the party base and working with a single goal in mind: not being lumped in with the rest of the field.
While most Democrats crowd an Iowa dinner this weekend, he won't be on the campaign trail. While most Democrats tout their support of abortion rights, Biden is offering a more nuanced, middle-ground position. And while most Democrats are preparing to battle one another, Biden is focused on President Donald Trump.
Biden's moves suggest a candidate looking beyond the Democratic primary to the general election, laser-focused on issues that could shore him up with swing voters in key battleground states even if it spurs consternation from some Democrats now. At the moment, the strategy seems to be working as Biden enjoys a sizable lead in most early polls. But that could change with the first presidential debate of the season just weeks away.
“You are still running for the Democratic Party nomination, and you have to respect where the party is ... and avoid pitfalls,” said Karen Finney, a key adviser in 2016 to Hillary Clinton, who navigated a fraught relationship with Democrats' left flank to win the nomination but went on to lose the election. “It's a very fine line he's trying to walk.”
There are fresh signs of the peril he faces atop the field.
In a span of 24 hours this week, a staffer appeared to cut short a question-and-answer session with New Hampshire voters after the candidate called China “xenophobic,” suggesting the campaign remains anxious about Biden's tendency to go off script. Aides admitted the campaign published a climate policy proposal without properly sourcing some material, a sign of a potential lack of discipline that sank Biden's previous White House bids.
And Biden's defense of his abortion views enraged fellow Democrats and left him uncomfortably close to Trump, whose campaign happily noted the president also opposes federal money supporting abortion.
More broadly, Biden risks contending with the same air of inevitability that Clinton confronted in 2016, magnifying every misstep and turning some voters against her.
“There are just places where he is out of step with the party,” Finney observed, citing his middle ground on abortion. “The question becomes whether there's an assumption by this campaign that parts of the base might not like various positions but because people want to win, they'll be willing to look past it.”
Biden's Democratic competitors have been reluctant to attack publicly. Even as they disagreed with Biden's abortion views on Wednesday, they generally avoided referring to him by name.
In private, however, rival campaigns are eager to complain that Biden hides from scrutiny. He's among the only top-tier candidates yet to appear in a cable news town hall, and in contrast with many of his opponents, he rarely takes questions from groups of reporters after his campaign appearances.
Some of Biden's top-tier opponents acknowledge they fear voter backlash should they engage the popular Biden more directly. They expect to debate policy differences, but most want to avoid the kind of scorched-earth attacks that fueled Trump's rise during the 2016 Republican primary.
Only groups like the Progressive Change Campaign Committee — which backs Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren — have called Biden out aggressively. The group this week tweeted a picture of Biden's schedule for June that features 10 days of campaigning; several days are limited to invitation-only fundraisers.
“You can hide for a few weeks during the primary, but you can't hide from public engagement during the general election against Trump,” said PCCC co-founder Adam Green.
At Biden headquarters, aides don't deny a front-runner's approach, but they dispute any characterization that the former vice president isn't engaging voters. Days when he's not on the campaign trail, they say, are devoted to meetings with policy advisers and campaign aides. Indeed, Biden has unveiled two comprehensive policy outlines (education and climate) before the 40-day mark of his campaign, a faster clip than the gaggle of candidates who launched their bids in January and February.
And they say Biden made it to all four early voting states faster than most of his top-tier rivals.
Biden isn't skipping large-scale Democratic events altogether. On Thursday, he'll be in Atlanta at a Democratic National Committee event focused on minorities and voting rights. Later in June, he'll spend two days at the South Carolina state party convention, an important stop ahead of the South's first primary and the first nominating contest to feature a large black contingent.
And allowing a press pool at fundraisers — something his opponents aren't doing systematically — means any misstep is captured, even if not on camera. He's attended house parties and lunchtime meet-and-greets and taken questions in New Hampshire and Iowa, even if not as much as barnstormers like Warren or New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker.
Scott Brennan, a former Iowa Democratic Party chairman, said Biden's strength in early polls allows him to “get a pass” from some of the criticism for now. But he warned that Biden should be aware of a nebulous measure: “Whether voters feel like you're accessible.”
Then-Sen. Barack Obama skipped Iowa's Hall of Fame dinner in 2007 — the same event Biden will miss this weekend. But Obama went on to win Iowa, largely because of his lengthy sessions answering questions from voters in more personal settings.
In New Hampshire on Tuesday, voters offered a mixed assessment.
Cynthia Tomai, a 51-year-old who is self-employed, said Biden has to play “catch up” to other candidates. “Would I like to see a little bit more aggressiveness in him?” Tomai said. “Yeah, I would. I think he does need to change his message a little bit.”
Lloyd Murray, a 67-year-old military veteran and business owner, said Biden's front-runner approach is smart.
“I'm scared for him,” Murray said. “He's known to make [gaffes] in the past. I want him to play it safe. He's in the lead.”