Tuesday 15 October 2019

Frontrunner Biden to face rivals for presidential run in TV debate

Debate veteran: Joe Biden has won support in part from his time as Barack Obama's vice president. Photo: REUTERS/Leah Millis
Debate veteran: Joe Biden has won support in part from his time as Barack Obama's vice president. Photo: REUTERS/Leah Millis

Sahil Kapur

Joe Biden has kicked off the most high-stakes week so far of his campaign to run for US president, as he heads into the first Democratic debate with the opportunity to solidify his frontrunner status.

The former vice president of the United States doesn't need to win the debate, he just needs not to lose, as his 19 rivals seek to stand out from the crowd by taking him on to represent the Democratic party in next year's election.

Mr Biden has given the other contenders plenty of ammunition with recent unforced errors, such as comments about his civil relationships with segregationist senators in the 1970s and a flip-flop on abortion funding.

"The biggest risk and peril for Biden is Joe Biden," said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic consultant based in Boston.

"He has a proclivity for making mistakes, for not apologising for them, and then oftentimes not explaining his positions on things."

Mr Biden (76) benefits from high name recognition, strong relationships with party leaders and a perception that he's the most "electable" Democrat to put up against President Donald Trump (73).

Until now, he has largely been able to stay above the fray, keeping a low-key campaign schedule with few events and press interviews.

The debates - Mr Biden's first since 2012 - are his chance to show the country he has the gravitas his opponents lack.

But the event follows the toughest stretch for Mr Biden since he started his campaign in April.

His remarks about working alongside segregationist politicians in the Senate set off several days of criticism, including from senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, the two major black candidates in the race.

Mr Biden had dismissed Mr Booker's demands for an apology, and had instead asked the New Jersey senator to apologise to him.

The televised debates feature 20 candidates split into groups of 10 tomorrow and on Thursday. Each night will include a mix of top-tier and lower-polling contenders - Mr Biden will appear on Thursday along with Ms Harris, Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg.

The first night will match Elizabeth Warren against Beto O'Rourke, Mr Booker and Amy Klobuchar.

Mr Biden's team is thought to be preparing a positive message about steady and ethical leadership and by emphasising the stakes of the election as a battle for the country's soul.

Mr Biden's biggest advantage may be his debate experience. He is a veteran of presidential forums since his ill-fated 1988 run and his 2008 bid that led to his selection as Barack Obama's running mate, as well as the vice presidential debates in 2008 and 2012.

Some Democrats credit his 2012 performance against Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan with stopping the bleeding from Mr Obama's re-election campaign after the then president bombed in his first debate.

"He is a good debater. A lot of people miss that," said Tad Devine, an adviser to past presidential campaigns such as Mr Sanders' strong challenge to Hillary Clinton in 2016.

In the 2008 Democratic debates, Mr Biden demonstrated his composure, fluency on the issues and a knack for using humour to create memorable moments.

In a July 2007 debate, when the Democrats were asked if they'd work for the minimum wage, Mr Obama said the candidates on stage "don't have Mitt Romney money" but were wealthy enough to afford it.

"I don't have Barack Obama money, either," Biden said, drawing warm laughter from the crowd.

In another debate, Mr Biden responded to a question about whether a man with his gaffe-prone tendencies can reassure voters he has the discipline to perform on the world stage, the then-senator responded coolly with a one-word answer: "Yes." The debate hall erupted in laughter, and the moderator moved on.

Mr Devine said debates tend not to harm campaigns unless a candidate makes a "catastrophic mistake".


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