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Joe Biden’s Democratic Debate Performance Could Cost Him

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Biden has told friends that part of the reason for sticking to an ultra-light schedule is to create more time for debate prep, which for him tends to be less about conducting mock sessions and role-playing than digging into briefing books. This will likely hold: Biden’s aides are not convinced that any kind of interaction he’d have at a town hall or other event is comparable to what’s awaiting him onstage. His campaign staffers expect the debates to either crystallize his top spot, or turn the primary into less of a marathon with Biden out ahead and more like two dozen Slinkies tumbling down a flight of stairs.

“This is not a debate. It’s not going to be structured as a debate. It is 10 candidates in a joint appearance with press moderators,” one Biden adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not able to discuss strategy publicly, told me.

Biden’s debate prep is being led by Ron Klain, one of the former vice president’s longest-serving aides and a fixture in Democratic debate prep in almost every presidential election of the past two decades, and Anita Dunn, the former Obama communications director and an old Biden friend.

Both the candidate and his aides expect him to be the top target in these first debates. “He has never gone into a debate … [as] the person who is going to have all the shots taken at him,” the Biden adviser told me. “There’s almost no downside to people who barely qualify for the debate in punching up in any way they can, and trying very hard to get one of the people above them to engage with them in the debate.”  

Biden’s goal is to not give his rivals what he thinks they’re looking for. But he and his team are on edge at the prospect of so many candidates aiming for him from so many directions at once, attacking his record and questioning his rationale for running—all while he tries to come across as the candidate who is set apart from the rest of the field but doesn’t hold himself up as being on another level. “Clearly, the front-runner is the person that’s going to be the target of the people who are not the front-runner,” says Ted Kaufman, the former Delaware senator, who is a close friend and adviser to Biden. “I’ve been in presidential races where he’s not the front-runner, and I’ll tell you what: It’s a lot better being the front-runner.”

New polls out Tuesday show a race that has stabilized after Biden’s larger-than-expected bump this spring, powered in large part by name recognition and the idea that he’s the candidate best positioned to beat President Donald Trump. He’s still out ahead of the pack, but not leading by as much.

“If it were an open race, Biden may not be as viable a candidate, because the Democratic electorate would be looking for a leader of the future,” says Marc Morial, the president of the National Urban League, who said that he’s a longtime friend of Biden as well as several other candidates in the race. “[Voters are] looking for a leader who can beat Donald Trump.”



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