Joe Biden Knows He Says the Wrong Thing

Many advisers and donors to Joseph R. Biden Jr. were elated last Wednesday as he delivered one of the best-reviewed speeches of his 2020 campaign, using prepared remarks on a Teleprompter to accuse President Trump of encouraging white supremacy and to frame the next election in sweeping moral terms about the future of the country.

Their jubilation didn’t last long.

The next day, Mr. Biden made a gaffe saying “poor kids” were as bright and talented as “white kids” before correcting himself — a remark that sent his staff scrambling. Then on Saturday, he said that as vice president he met with students who survived the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., when in fact that shooting had not occurred when he was in office.

Indeed, in the span of less than a week, he also briefly mixed up where the El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, gun massacres took place; invoked former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain when he apparently meant to say Theresa May; and fumbled an oft-repeated campaign line while at the Iowa State Fair.

While his advisers dismissed the individual remarks as minor miscues that Mr. Biden mostly amended quickly, the slip-ups have become part of a pattern — a strong campaign trail moment, followed by a blunder that dominates the news coverage — that has been enormously frustrating to them and, some Democratic allies say, to Mr. Biden himself.

Mr. Biden has a long history of verbal flubs and gaffes, so much so that he is comfortable making light of these self-inflicted errors. But he is also a proud man who has often talked about his own brand of speaking plainly and off-the-cuff. In recent weeks, he has expressed frustration to allies that his candidacy will suffer if he is judged too harshly on the slip-ups, which he thinks he can do little to correct so long as he is being true to himself.

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Some of his advisers said in interviews that they were privately nervous that his recent gaffe spree would become cemented into the larger narrative of the presidential race. They also say that Mr. Biden faces an unfair double standard.

Yet there is a real political risk for Mr. Biden. Some party activists have already been worried that, at 76, he may be too old to go toe-to-toe with Mr. Trump, who is 73, and win. If the accumulation of verbal missteps continues, some Democrats say, it will eventually sow doubts about what many primary voters believe is Mr. Biden’s biggest strength: that he is best positioned to beat Mr. Trump.

“I have to say, he just doesn’t seem to have his heart in it or the energy for the slog this time,” said Chris Henning, the chairwoman of the Greene County Democratic Party in Iowa, who caucused for Mr. Biden when he ran for president in 2008 and is uncommitted this cycle.

Mr. Biden’s campaign advisers and allies insist that Mr. Biden is as physically and mentally sharp as ever. They plan to implicitly knock down any suggestion that his gaffes reveal a candidate past his prime by suggesting that his cringe-inducing comments are nothing new and that voters are already used to his propensity for misspeaking.

“Joe Biden has spoken his mind his entire life, which voters know and love about him,” said Kate Bedingfield, Mr. Biden’s communications director and deputy campaign manager. “He’s a real person, he’s authentic and that will never change.”

The Rev. Joseph Darby of South Carolina, who considers Mr. Biden a longtime friend, was blunter as he emphasized that “Joe’s always been gaffe-prone — it’s just a piece of who he is.”

“He made a bunch of them last week but I don’t think it affects his capacity to govern,” added Mr. Darby, who for professional reasons has not endorsed a candidate but expressed a view shared by many Biden supporters. “He is as sharp as he’s been. You’re running against Donald Trump, for chrissake. Donald Trump has had his own share of gaffes, numerous gaffes, on top of falsehoods, on top of bigoted insults.”

Of course, a political strategy of highlighting that your own candidate has long committed verbal blunders is not the ideal method of damage control. But advisers said privately that there was little they could do to change Mr. Biden’s speaking style, even as they were quick to fault the news media for, in their view, blowing missteps out of proportion.

They argue that rank-and-file voters care less about his misstatements than the news media and the liberal activists on Twitter, pointing to Mr. Biden’s lead in national and most early-state surveys. They also note that he has survived far bigger controversies this summer without losing his front-runner position in the polls.

But his lead has dwindled in Iowa and New Hampshire, according to public polling, and he has yet to face any substantial negative advertising campaign that could drag down poll numbers further. Should he remain in the lead, and continue to best Mr. Trump in head-to-head surveys, Mr. Biden is virtually certain to be targeted by both his Democratic rivals and groups on the right who fear his nomination.

Already, some prominent Democrats backing other candidates are bluntly questioning Mr. Biden’s stamina.

Biden and his team owe it to voters to “run a real, rigorous public campaign schedule, like everyone else,” Adam Jentleson, who was an aide to former Senator Harry Reid and who supports Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, wrote on Twitter. “If he can hack it, great. If not, better to know sooner rather than later.”

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Some in Mr. Biden’s orbit recognize the damage he could do to himself with undecided Democrats if he continues to find rakes to step on.

They are feverishly pushing to move the focus from his verbal miscues and onto the more substantive shifts of some of his rivals, not to mention the rhetoric of Mr. Trump.

“It’s one thing to mix up when you met with the Parkland kids, it’s another to mix up whether you’re for banning private health care companies,” said John Anzalone, a pollster who works for Mr. Biden, alluding to Senator Kamala Harris’s uncertain handling of perhaps the biggest issue in the Democratic race. “That is a gaffe people should be worried about.”

(Ms. Harris, of California, took contradictory positions this spring on whether she would eliminate private health insurance as part of a single-payer system; her new plan would keep a significant role for private insurers.)

The former vice president, cognizant of the glare he is under, has tried in some ways to rein himself in, often delivering speeches with the use of a Teleprompter and, in debates and on the stump, noting that he is purposefully curbing his commentary.

His aides are adamant that they do not intend to limit his time spent retail politicking — that is where he is strongest, they say — or to dial back his public schedule, which has gotten busier in recent weeks. But they have already been highly cautious about what interviews he will do, which is not unusual for a front-runner but is nevertheless a marked contrast with others in this field.

For example, Mr. Biden was the only one of the leading candidates who declined to sit recently for an interview with David Axelrod, a former strategist for President Barack Obama, in Iowa for a CNN program on the first nominating state that is to air later this month.

Mr. Biden’s allies said the response to his gaffes should be more Biden, not less.

“Letting Joe be Joe is the way to go, meeting people one-on-one and not in two-second sound bites is going to impress people,” said Representative Filemon Vela of Texas, a Biden supporter. “Getting Joe Biden to meet people is the best thing for the Joe Biden campaign.”

Mr. Vela says the more exposure voters have to Mr. Biden, the more they will embrace his candidacy, recalling the lengthy questioning that the former vice president faced during a nearly two-hour private meeting with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus last month.

“Nobody in that room left concerned about his ability to beat Donald Trump,” Mr. Vela said.

Some even argue that Mr. Biden’s penchant for self-inflicted error is part of what humanizes him and draws people to him.

“Voters can identify with a guy who occasionally makes a mistake because they know where his heart is,” said former Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa, a longtime friend of the Biden family who has yet to endorse a candidate.

Added former Gov. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania: “The American people don’t look at these things with as much obsession, as much overemphasis, as much importance as we do. They know who Joe Biden is. For better or worse, they know who Joe Biden is, they know who Bernie Sanders is, and they sure as hell know who Donald Trump is.”

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