A searing fight over race, inequality and history is dominating the Democratic presidential race in the days before the next high-stakes televised debates, with the two leading black candidates, Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, directly challenging former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. over his decades-long record.
Speaking at the National Urban League Annual Conference on Thursday, Mr. Booker sought to undercut the former vice president’s strong poll numbers with black voters, a core constituency in the Democratic primary and a current key base of support for Mr. Biden. The speech followed days of attacks from Mr. Booker on Mr. Biden’s new criminal justice reform plan, in which Mr. Booker highlighted Mr. Biden’s role in championing the 1994 crime bill that experts link to mass incarceration, dubbing him “the proud architect of a failed system.”
Mr. Biden and his campaign, meantime, have increasingly criticized both Mr. Booker and Ms. Harris in the lead-up to next week’s debate, forcefully defending Mr. Biden’s record on race and openly drawing contrasts on issues ranging from health care to policing. Mr. Biden’s willingness to engage his rivals comes after Ms. Harris tore into his record of opposing busing initiatives on the debate stage last month, dealing him his most significant blow of the campaign to date.
Virtually everyone in Mr. Biden’s campaign, from the former vice president on down, subscribes to the idea that he can no longer seek to stay above the Democratic fray on the debate stage, a posture he had tried to maintain in the early weeks of his campaign.
“I’m not going to be as polite this time,” Mr. Biden said at a fund-raiser in Detroit on Wednesday. When an attendee told him that clashing with Mr. Booker and Ms. Harris now could make him a stronger general election candidate, Mr. Biden said: “If they want to argue about the past, I can do that. I got a past I’m proud of. They got a past that’s not quite so good.”
The confrontation on race and inequality between the candidates has been building for weeks and appeared to be approaching a boiling point on Thursday. Ever since Mr. Booker dispensed with the primary’s early-stage niceties and demanded Mr. Biden apologize for his warm remarks about working with segregationists in the Senate, he and Ms. Harris have gone on the offensive by aggressively denouncing Mr. Biden’s record on race.
By highlighting Mr. Biden’s opposition to school busing, his support for the crime bill and other aspects of his long career in Washington, Ms. Harris — who later had to clarify her current stance on busing — and Mr. Booker have sought to portray their rival as having been on the wrong side of issues and developments affecting black Americans for decades, even as polls show Mr. Biden with consistent, and sometimes commanding, leads among African-American voters at this stage in the race.
Though Mr. Booker never mentioned Mr. Biden by name on Thursday, his speech amplified the critique, making the case that Mr. Biden’s record on issues like criminal justice could hamper his ability to energize African-American voters, whose turnout will be critical if the Democrats wish to defeat President Trump next year.
“I want to talk about what people often mean when they say or ask, ‘Is someone electable,’” Mr. Booker said. “Because most of the time when somebody is asking about electability, they’re not asking about the African-American voters who make up the most reliable constituency of the Democratic Party. And that’s a problem.”
“It is easy to call Donald Trump a racist now, you get no badge of courage for that,” Mr. Booker added. “The question is, what were you doing to address structural inequality and institutional racism throughout your life? Don’t just tell us what you’re going to do. Tell us what you’ve already done. Don’t just tell us you’re going to be a champion for our communities when you become president, if you haven’t been a champion already.”
Although the Biden campaign presented evidence to the contrary on Thursday, some polls have shown that the continued critiques have undercut his standing with black voters — the most important Democratic constituency in 2020.
A day earlier, Mr. Biden swung back at Mr. Booker’s criticisms by making his own arguments against Mr. Booker’s record while he was mayor of Newark.
His campaign also sent a lengthy statement to reporters Wednesday afternoon responding to Mr. Booker’s criticisms of Mr. Biden’s record. “It is Senator Booker, in fact, who has some hard questions to answer about his role in the criminal justice system,” the statement said.
The return volley from Mr. Biden’s campaign elevated Mr. Booker, a candidate who has struggled in the polls for months, as the back-and-forth created a drumbeat of media coverage leading into next week’s debate. And the aggressive response from Mr. Biden further freed Mr. Booker to take more direct aim at Mr. Biden in the debate next Wednesday, when he and Ms. Harris will be standing on either side of him.
Less than an hour after Mr. Booker made his comments about electability, Kate Bedingfield, the Biden campaign’s communications director, returned fire, sending a tweet with photos of two polls that indicated Mr. Biden’s support among black voters far surpassed Mr. Booker’s.
While that may be true, Ms. Harris’s decision to highlight Mr. Biden’s stance on school busing and integration at the June debates gave her a significant boost in recent polls that was propelled in part by black voters.
Mr. Biden has said he felt blindsided by Ms. Harris’s questioning, a point he reiterated in a radio interview that aired Thursday morning on “The Tom Joyner Morning Show.”
“I thought we were friends,” he said. “I hope we still will be.”