DAVENPORT, Iowa — Former Vice President Joe Biden had just called President Trump’s tweets about Bette Midler ahead of a D-Day memorial ceremony in Normandy “a stunning display of childishness that the whole world watched,” when he was interrupted.
“He is!” a woman in the crowd yelled, implying Trump is a child.
Biden smiled, cleared his throat and rubbed the edges of his mouth, pantomiming as if he was physically holding words behind his lips.
“Be nice, Joe!” a man in the crowd yelled. Biden moved on.
In speeches in Iowa this week, the Democratic front-runner in the 2020 presidential primary at times seemed to want to pivot to a full-throated and personal attack on President Donald Trump. But folks, don’t get him started.
Just as soon as Biden would wind up for a potential attack line at speeches Tuesday in Ottumwa, Mt. Pleasant, and Davenport, he stopped himself and said some variation of “I shouldn’t get started” or reminded the crowd that his mom always told him to be nice.
In-between chatting up diner patrons in Eldridge, Iowa, on Wednesday, Biden said he doesn’t think being nice is too much of an old-school approach for the scorched-earth politics of the Trump era.
“I think people are tired of the bitterness,” he told VICE News. “I think we should be talking to people about what you believe. You're not attacking their motives.”
A two-day tour of Eastern Iowa was billed as Biden’s moment to eviscerate Trump. Text of a Biden speech sent to press advance promised a stunning contrast with the president. But it was some of the lines Biden never delivered that defined his contrast between Biden and Trump — and between Biden and his Democratic competition.
On Tuesday, before taking off on Air Force One for his own Iowa trip, Trump called Biden “a loser,” “a sleepy guy” and “the weakest, mentally” out of the Democratic field, in addition to claiming that “people don’t respect him.”
Days earlier at a Democratic gathering in Cedar Rapids, Sen. Bernie Sanders called Trump racist, xenophobic and a pathological liar. Sen. Elizabeth Warren has called Trump a loser; and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg accused him of faking an injury to avoid serving in the Vietnam War. Both are gaining on Biden in the Iowa polls.
The text of Biden’s speech included the line that if he becomes the Democratic nominee, “I’m going to give Trump a thrashing every day on healthcare.” Instead, he actually said the American people would trash Trump, while Biden promised, “I’m not going to let the American people forget” about the issue.
The text of the speech read that “Trump sneers” at the American creed. Biden instead said Trump “doesn’t see it that way.” Another prepared remark said Trump has his “tail between his legs” on the Affordable Care Act. Biden didn’t mention a tail at the Davenport speech.
Biden nearly meandered into an off-script riff about Trump’s claim that the Scranton-born Biden “deserted” Pennsylvania — a claim that clearly grates at the man who holds his Scranton roots as key to his “Middle-Class Joe” identity. But he caught himself.
“Yo! I mean, ugh. I shouldn’t get started,” he told the crowd.
Earlier in the day in Mt. Pleasant, Biden noted that aides told him Trump had watched his first speech in Ottumwa live on Fox News Channel from Air Force One.
“I guess he’s really fascinated with me. I find it fascinating,” Biden said, before shaking off that line of thought. “As my mother would say: ‘Focus. Focus. Don’t descend. Stay up.’”
Biden wants to win the nomination and the presidency not by fighting fire with fire, but instead smothering it with a big blanketing hug.
“By not talking about him personally, talking about where I disagree with the issues, why he's doing such damage to the country,” he told reporters after the Mt. Pleasant remarks. “That's totally different than attacking his character — or lack thereof, if you argued that. That is not my job.”
The strategy could pay off in the early going, as many Iowa residents have not even decided who they will support in the primary and want to hear them differentiate themselves from each other.
Jean Carpenter, 70, an undecided Iowa caucus-goer, said after Biden’s speech in her hometown of Mt. Pleasant that she appreciated the former vice president talking about issues important to him, like unions and healthcare, rather than solely attacking Trump.
“I think it's too early for that. I think right now, what I like to hear from candidates is what they think is important and what they stand for,” the retired college administrator said. “That's what I want to hear first, because it's those kinds of comments, those kinds of conversations that I think really help us to decide when it comes to a caucus.”
“Later, there’s going to be lots of opportunities to bash Trump,” she added.
Kevin Lueders, an ACLU volunteer who lives in Davenport, said it’s important for him to see a candidate who shows an ability to float above the fray but can also get his hands dirty when necessary.
“We need somebody that can rise above and show a good example, like President Obama used to,” Lueders said. “We also need somebody that's tough, that’s going to be able to scrap with him, because Trump is a worthy adversary, to be sure. So it's going to take somebody with some real chutzpah.”
But Biden left something to be desired for people who find Trump so offensive; they want to see a more severe approach. Biden drew many laughs during his speeches — especially at moments when he held himself back.
Molly Regan, 57, the first vice chairwoman of the Scott County Democrats, said after his Davenport speech that she takes issue with Biden’s jocular tone.
“There are a lot of people who revel in comedy, in comic relief,” she said. “He's not the only one. But he's the one that's doing it the most. I don't think there's anything funny about the current placeholder on the White House.”
Biden certainly did lash into Trump at times, and talked about the urgency of the election, noting that “Trump poses a fundamental threat to America.” But the direct attacks were relatively light compared to his fellow Democrats, and compared to what Trump does.
“We can overcome four years of this presidency. It’ll go down in history as an aberration,” Biden said in Davenport. “But ladies and gentlemen, if he’s in the White House for eight years, he’s going to forever change and fundamentally alter the character of this nation.”
“This president is setting a standard for crude language and embarrassing behavior that is burrowing deep into this culture,” he went on later.
Biden also responded to Trump’s 2018 campaign line that only he can fix the country’s problems with an ad-libbed call and response to himself, stating sternly, “Fix yourself first, Donald Trump!”
In Ottumwa, Biden’s speech was interrupted by a man traveling as part of a crew of anti-abortion activists tailing the campaign and yelling about “killing babies.” Biden promised to speak with him personally after the rally if he would just settle down. A Biden aide said the candidate was late to the next rally because he spent time personally talking to the man after the speech.
Later that day, when the same group interrupted his Davenport speech several times, the Biden-friendly crowd got angry, and one man even pushed a protester. Biden, however, asked them to follow his example and hold back.
“Be nice,” Biden urged them. “This is not a Trump rally.”
Cover: Former vice president and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks during a campaign event on June 11, 2019 in Ottumwa, Iowa. Biden and over two dozen presidential candidates are seeking the democratic nomination to challenge Republican President Donald Trump during the 2020 general election. (Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images)