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Biden’s mission: Don’t punch down

For the first time in a Democratic debate, the former vice president will be the central target of a crowded field. | Sean Rayford/Getty Images

2020 DEMOCRATIC DEBATES

In past debates, Biden has knocked it out of the park. But this time he’s the central target on a crowded stage and he’s been coached to avoid conflict.

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It was 2012, and an overconfident President Barack Obama had just bombed his first head-to-head against GOP nominee Mitt Romney. A wave of nervousness and doubt crested over his reelection bid after his sluggish debate performance, raising the stakes for Vice President Joe Biden in his own debate a week later against Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan.

Biden rose to the occasion. He was authoritative and aggressive in all the ways Obama was not. He frequently interrupted to correct the wonky GOP star more than 25 years his junior, and seemed to hit just the right notes with his folksy style.

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In the eyes of many anxious Democrats, Biden knocked it out of the park.

“It was crucial for us,” former Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said of Biden’s performance. “We had to have a solid debate to back the economic messaging and Joe Biden had a great debate. History will report that he won that debate handily.”

The circumstances are decidedly different as Biden enters Thursday’s Democratic debate in Miami, but once again much is riding on his performance. And if he’s proved anything over his three presidential runs and decades of debating on the national stage, it’s that on these occasions he comes through in the clutch.

He’s held his own against a pantheon of Democratic luminaries ranging from Rev. Jesse Jackson and Michael Dukakis to Hillary Clinton and Obama. Despite fears he would be caught mansplaining to then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in the 2008 vice-presidential debate, he won plaudits for deftly handling the dynamics while coming off as a policy expert. Democrats still credit Biden for getting Obama’s campaign back on track against Romney.

Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), the former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and Biden’s campaign co-chairman, said Biden has a knack for performing well when the stakes are highest.

“He usually rises to the occasion,” said Richmond. “I think it’s the way he connects. When he talks, people get the feeling that he understands. I think that’s the big appeal — that most families believe he knows what they’re going through.”

Charm, warmth and humor are among the weapons Biden deploys to throw his opponents off-guard. When asked by moderator Brian Williams in a 2007 debate if he could reassure voters that he’d have the discipline he’d need on the world stage — the question was prefaced with a reference to his verbosity and reputation as “a gaffe machine” — Biden won the moment with a one-word answer.

“Yes,” Biden said plainly before stopping speaking, leading to a roomful of laughter.

He can seamlessly transition from folksy “Uncle Joe” from Scranton, Pa., to a more pugilistic version of himself when attempting to correct the record. Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a former presidential contender who took part in more than a half-dozen forums with the then-Delaware senator in 2007, said Biden’s best asset is his ability to come across as reassuring and genuine.

“He connected with the TV and the audience in the debates. He was very good at telling stories. The way to connect with voters is to tell stories — not to have a 10-point plan. He was very good at that,” said Richardson, who has not backed any candidate in the 2020 primary. “I believe he will win the first debate.”

Richardson described Biden as “the best debater” in the 2008 Democratic field — which included Obama, Clinton and polished trial attorney John Edwards.

But that was more than a decade ago. Biden is now 76 years old, and questions about his advanced age have been raised by his Democratic rivals and President Donald Trump. He has kept to a less taxing campaign schedule than his opponents and limited the number of questions from the media and from the public, so he’s had little practice answering questions off the cuff and when he does address crowds his speaking style is sometimes halting. When he does address crowds, his speaking style is sometimes halting.

For the first time in a Democratic debate, the former vice president will be the central target of a crowded field. He’s preparing to face attacks on everything from his flipflopping on federal abortion funding to his controversial remarks last week citing his work with segregationist Senators James Eastland and Herman Talmadge.

In anticipation, Biden has been studying up for weeks. He has two veteran debate specialists helping him with prep: Anita Dunn and Ron Klain, both of whom assisted in debate prep for Obama.

Among his greatest challenges in practice debate sessions, according to one of Biden’s advisers, was getting sidetracked by jabs from lower tiered contenders.

When that happens, Biden has been coached to avoid conflict and praise his fellow Democrats on stage. The plan is to mention they’re not all that far apart in their ideas, then bring the conversation back to Trump and how Biden is best positioned to take him on. While some Democrats have privately wondered if Biden might verbally stumble on stage in a forgetful or loose-tongued moment, one of his advisers confidently rebutted: “He won’t.”

The former vice president is also being advised to use attacks on his record to his advantage.

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“You get 30 seconds to respond,” a separate Biden adviser said of how they’re viewing incoming attacks. “The more time the vice president has to speak, the more time he’ll have to talk about his positive message and the more time you’ll continue hearing him talking about his view.”

“We know candidates are looking for breakout moments in these debates,” the adviser continued. “Vice President Biden doesn’t need a breakout moment.”

But he will need to alter his aggressive style from the last time he debated — against Ryan in 2012. His mission is different this time, and he’ll need to tone down an approach that at times was so over the top that Saturday Night Live built a skit around it.

“My advice to him is not to let anyone distort his record. And make sure that’s the case,” said Richmond. “I don’t know, if you hit him with it, you give him a chance to clarify that he did not like Eastland but he had to get stuff done … you give him an opportunity to talk about all the things he was able to do to advance civil rights, working with people who didn’t want to advance civil rights.”

When it comes to rebuttals, Biden’s best defense Thursday might be his offense: his eight years as part of the Obama White House. Biden is expected to draw from a stockpile of experiences with the former president, beginning with the health care overhaul.

Messina called it Biden’s most valuable asset in his first debate of 2020.

“He’s part of eight years of leadership that changed the world,” Messina said. “Barack Obama’s the most popular democratic elected official in the Democratic Party. Joe Biden will talk a lot about that in his first debate I would guess.”

As the likely center of attention — perhaps on both debate nights this week — Biden could find himself in a situation similar to the one that Trump faced in 2016. At the time, on a crowded stage, he was the subject of attack after attack and not always to his detriment.

“When you’re the target, you’re also the one getting all the attention.This is a competition for mindshare. A lot of people are going to be taking a run at Biden — and it’s going to come at their own expense,” said David Kochel, a Republican strategist who advised both of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns and Jeb Bush’s bid in 2016.

And, Kochel said, each time Biden contrasts himself directly with Trump, it’s like “jet fuel for his campaign.”

“He’s in a position, assuming he performs well, of looking like the real king of the field.”

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