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Joe Biden Is Collapsing

Who's going to pick up his mantle as the establishment favorite?

Jim Watson/GettyImages

Joe Biden brought his “No Malarkey” tour to a New Hampshire debate stage on Friday night. But in promising to tell the truth, he accidentally exposed his own doleful (or I should say, Bob Dole-ful) prospects in Tuesday’s opening-gun primary.

In his first words of the debate—the moment when candidates are usually the most scripted—Biden confessed, “I took a hit in Iowa, and I’ll probably take a hit here.” It was a novel campaign strategy; few candidates ever say, “Vote for me because I’m going to lose here.”

If his comments were a brief misstep in an otherwise smooth debate, it would have been one thing. But throughout the evening, Biden adopted a combative tone that undercut one of his strongest assets as a candidate—his avuncular persona. Biden may merely have been frustrated; the 77-year-old can see himself losing New Hampshire to the dewy Pete Buttigieg (who was born during Biden’s second term in the Senate) and to the perpetual left-wing Senate gadfly Bernie Sanders. But he ought to know better: The night Bob Dole lost the 1988 New Hampshire GOP primary, he snapped at George H.W. Bush in a television interview, “Stop lying about my record.” Friday night in Manchester, Biden seemed ready to shout, “Stop ignoring my 47-year record.” 

It all came to the surface when Buttigieg made his standard generational attack on “the politics of the past” and stressed the need to “bring change in Washington before it’s too late.”

For Biden, the ultimate Washington candidate, this was too much. Playing his remember-whose-veep-I-was card, Biden said with exasperation, “I don’t know what about the past of Barack Obama and Joe Biden was so bad.  What happened?  What is it that he wants to do away with?”

At some point soon, establishment Democrats will have to face the reality that Biden, for all his personal virtues, probably doesn’t have what it takes to win the nomination in 2020. After Biden’s 10 months as an uninspiring active candidate, it seems folly to believe that all it will take is a campaign shakeup or a new stump speech to turn things around.

Sure, this dire verdict may be premature. For the moment, Biden is holding onto his African American support in the February 29 South Carolina primary and leading in most national polls. But those numbers may look different next week if Biden limps home in fourth or even fifth in New Hampshire. In politics, universally known and liked former vice presidents don’t win by losing badly in both Iowa and New Hampshire. 

If not Biden, then who?

That is the urgent question facing Democrats frightened by the prospect of their party following a Pied Piper named Bernie Sanders. Especially since Sanders in the debate still lacked good answers to questions about his mixed record on gun control and his flirtation with the NRA in the 1990s.

Mike Bloomberg may prove to be the establishment’s savior if he can pull off a dramatic appearance as soon as the curtain rises for the second act of the Democratic drama on Super Tuesday. But the former Republican mayor of New York is even less of a real Democrat than Sanders, who runs as an independent for the Senate. And at a moment when “billionaire” is the leading epithet in the Democratic lexicon, does the party really want to nominate one of the richest men in the world?

All this brings us back to the other three serious candidates on the ABC News debate stage—Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, and Amy Klobuchar.

Buttigieg, who remains tied for the lead amid the Iowa caucus crackup, did what he had to do Friday night, which was survive. Partly because of his limited political résumé and partly because of his lack of discernible African American support, Buttigieg again faced tough questioning over his record as South Bend mayor, especially about racial disparities in sentences for drug crimes. 

Even though Buttigieg is running as the charisma candidate of 2020, he doesn’t inspire the same visible passions that Bill Clinton and Barack Obama did at this point in their own races for the White House. At virtually every Obama rally in 2008, someone would shout from the bleachers in a crowded high-school gymnasium, “We love you, Obama.” Mayor Pete seldom receives such enthusiastic greetings. 

Elizabeth Warren, a candidate rarely at a loss for words, was oddly invisible during the first hour of the New Hampshire debate.

But she rebounded strongly when she went after Biden and Buttigieg, in particular, for their hypocrisy in saying that they oppose Citizens United while reaping the benefits of TV ad campaigns funded by Super PACs. Warren demanded in a blunt challenge to her rivals, “Put your money where your mouth is and say no to the PACs.”

Campaign reform—which is often dismissed as a niche issue that only appeals to good-government purists—has a proud history in the New Hampshire primary. In 2000, John McCain, who would go on to spearhead a sweeping campaign finance reform law, won the state’s Republican primary in an 18-point landslide, thanks to the support of reform-minded independents, who, in New Hampshire, can vote in either the Republican or Democratic primaries.

Warren, however, will have trouble following his lead. Nothing happened on the debate stage to change the slow downward arc of her campaign. Three of the winners of the last five contested Democratic primaries in New Hampshire have come from adjoining states. But somehow Warren—despite being a familiar face from Boston television—is mired in the low double digits in all of the state’s recent polls.

Many candidates who finish fifth in the Iowa caucuses hold a sad-eyed press conference to withdraw from the race. That’s what Biden did in 2008. But on Friday night, Amy Klobuchar—mostly powered by gumption and newspaper endorsements—persisted in making her last-ditch stand in New Hampshire.

Fifth-place candidates labor under the burden of being ignored on debate stages and everywhere else. Which is why it was so striking that Klobuchar dominated Friday night’s debate from the beginning. It was a virtuoso performance that will become part of New Hampshire primary lore, no matter how Klobuchar fares on Tuesday.

Perhaps her best moment came when she was asked about Bloomberg’s billions. She began with a dead-on observation, “People don’t look at the guy in the White House and say, ‘Can we get someone richer?’ I don’t think they think that.”

Then, in the kind of adroit pivot that should be taught during all debate prep sessions for the next 10 years, Klobuchar began talking about her personal biography, “My grandpa was an iron ore miner.... [He] saved money in a coffee can to send my dad to a two-year community college.  That was my family’s trust.”

Is it too late for Klobuchar?

Maybe. But University of New Hampshire political scientist Dante Scala, a leading expert on the primary, told me Saturday morning, “Klobuchar demonstrated last night why party elites were too quick to rally around the former vice president as the moderate establishment candidate.”

New Hampshire primary voters—who are notorious late deciders—love comeback stories. On the eve of the 1992 primary, Bill Clinton was facing oblivion from twin scandals about his affair with the lounge singer Gennifer Flowers and his special treatment from his Arkansas draft board during the Vietnam War.

Instead of cringing and cowering in the corner, Clinton gave one of the greatest political speeches I have ever witnessed. At a crowded Elks Club in Dover, Clinton told New Hampshire voters, “I’ll never forget who gave me a second chance. I’ll be there for you until the last dog dies.”

He eventually finished second behind former Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas and managed to get away with crowning himself “The Comeback Kid.” Similarly, in 1968, anti-war crusader Eugene McCarthy transformed the presidential race when he finished second in New Hampshire behind incumbent President Lyndon Johnson.

Beating expectations is what it is all about for Klobuchar, who should get a major bump from positive postdebate coverage in the final 72 hours before the primary. If she beats Biden here or even passes Warren for third, it will upend the Democratic race. And, yes, Klobuchar could then rightfully call herself “The Comeback Kid.”