MANCHESTER, New Hampshire — Joe Biden has had enough of Pete Buttigieg’s malarky and, folks, he’s about to show that young whippersnapper a thing or two about running for president.
In a series of post-debate appearances, a meandering press conference, and a withering new attack ad, Biden struck back at the South Bend upstart’s call for a new generation of leadership and wrapped himself in the legacy of former President Barack Obama.
It’s all part of the former vice president’s new, and somewhat uncomfortable, campaign trail look: scrappy underdog.
“I have never been very comfortable attacking somebody else. I don't think we need a circular firing squad,” Biden told reporters Saturday at his Manchester campaign office. “When you get attacked, you’ve gotta respond. I've kept my mouth shut for a long time. I haven't responded at all — at all.”
But the days of the Rose Garden strategy are done. Biden can no longer act like he’s already the Democratic nominee or refuse to deign to answer opponents’ attacks when those attacks are actually working and his path to the nomination is uncertain.
Now, Biden, whose candidacy is premised on trying to unify the Democratic Party, is going negative. He’s all but given up on winning New Hampshire, so with little left to lose here, he’s testing new lines of attack and defense, in something of an open-mic-night campaign in the Granite State.
His staff repeatedly tried to cut a Q&A with reporters short, but Biden kept ignoring them to take another, clearly indignant that the campaign narrative has turned against him. Gripping a microphone, he paced in front of a semicircle of reporters, often leaning in for emphasis and imploring them, “Come on, guys, let’s get real.”
Iowa meant nothing because the state party screwed up the results, he argued. There hasn’t even been a real debate yet, just a stage crowded with 15-second sound bites. Don’t forget, he’s still the national front-runner.
“Come on, man, this guy’s not a Barack Obama.”
“Come on, man, this guy’s not a Barack Obama,” Biden said of Buttigieg. “We want to compare records. It's easy to do. I get it. He's a good guy. He was a great mayor. But guess what? He wasn't there.”
The new ad condescendingly contrasts Biden’s vice presidency with Buttigieg’s mayoral duties, like fixing sidewalks, installing LED lights to illuminate a river, and firing the city’s first black police chief. It has racked up more than 4 million views in its one day online.
At a New Hampshire Democratic Party dinner at a college basketball arena Saturday night, Buttigieg answered the ad, saying, “Now I know some are asking, ‘What business does the South Bend mayor have seeking the highest office in the land?’”
“The city you’re the mayor of isn't even the biggest city in the country. It's more like, Manchester, New Hampshire,” he said, to cheers in the arena. “To which I say that is very much the point, because Americans in small rural towns, in industrial communities and, yes, in pockets of our country's biggest cities are tired of being reduced to a punch line by Washington politicians.”
Buttigieg has surged in New Hampshire, with recent polling showing him second behind Sen. Bernie Sanders. Biden, by contrast, is polling fourth or fifth behind Sanders, Buttigieg, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and, in one poll, even Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
Biden and his staff, however, are encouraging the public to look past the results in overwhelmingly-white Iowa and New Hampshire and take the first four primaries in their totality, banking hard the idea that Biden will have a firewall of black support in South Carolina.
New Hampshire “tracks pretty good for Pete Buttigieg given its demographic makeup,” said Biden spokeswoman Symone Sanders, after the Friday night debate. “I'd like to remind you all that the Democratic nominee since 1992 has been the person who was able to garner a substantial amount of votes from the African-American community.”
Implying, then, that attacking Biden is attacking Obama makes sense, tactically. Obama is still the most popular figure in the Democratic Party, but especially so among African-American voters.
“He's talking about how, you know, the reason why we have Trump is because of the recent past,” Biden told supporters in Manchester before sending them out to knock doors. “My impression was I thought Barack Obama was president in the recent past.”
The negative tone may be a hard adjustment for the campaign. Thumbtacked on the wall of the campaign headquarters were instructions for door-knockers, including, “Don’t speak negatively about anyone else.”
And what Biden hasn’t explicitly answered is the subtext of Buttigieg’s attacks. The appeals to turn the page to a new generation of leadership aren’t really, of course, bashing Obama. They’re slyly reminding voters that Biden is old and may have lost a step.
So really, Biden’s tonal shift this week may be more important than anything he or his campaign actually says. He’s often been subdued and solemn on the campaign trail. Now, he’s projecting passion and outrage about what has happened to the country.
The problem is Biden will have to keep that up consistently.
Millie LaFontaine, a retired physician from Concord, New Hampshire, said when she was leaving to see Biden speak in Manchester, her son asked which Biden she was expecting to get. She’s trying to decide between Biden, Buttiegieg, and Klobuchar.
“I was pleased, that was a good thing in my mind, that he kind of pulled himself together a little bit more than I've seen him other times,” she said. “I was very happy to see him, I won't say feisty, but determined and bold and pointing out his strengths, which are considerable.”
Biden’s campaign has been anchored by loss and ability to commiserate with those who are grieving. In a new line he’s road testing in New Hampshire, Biden brought that theme full circle, to big cheers from each crowd he’s delivered it to.
“You know, I've lost a lot in my lifetime, like many of you have. Car accident took away my wife and daughter, lost my son Beau, like many of you have done,” he mused. “But I'll be damned if I'm going to stand by and lose my country, too.”
He’ll have to make sure he doesn’t lose his campaign first.
Cover: Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the 100 Club Dinner at SNHIU on February 08, 2020 in Manchester, New Hampshire. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)