Joe Biden is at a crossroads in his quest for the Democratic presidential nomination, as President Trump fights an impeachment inquiry by unloading on the former vice president and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) overtakes him in some polls.
Trump and his allies are placing a big bet that they can tear Biden down by implicating him in a Ukraine scandal that has engulfed the administration and provoked House Democrats to launch an impeachment inquiry.
The Trump campaign is putting millions of dollars behind Biden-Ukraine ads in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, with the sole intention of damaging him among Democrats in the early-voting states.
Warren’s rise has also become a real threat to Biden, whose front-runner status is being challenged in earnest for the first time this year.
Four months out from the Iowa caucuses, Biden’s team is already talking about looking beyond the Hawkeye State, where the two most recent surveys show Warren with a slight edge. Warren has also caught Biden in recent national polls and surveys of New Hampshire and Nevada.
Third quarter fundraising numbers also have set off alarms in Biden World after he placed fourth among White House hopefuls, bringing in just over $15 million, a $7 million decline from the second quarter.
“This is either the beginning of the end, or the moment where they flip the switch and it all comes together,” said one Democratic fundraiser who supports Biden. “But the signs are not pointing in a good direction right now.”
Trump’s Ukraine scandal has become a major drag on Biden’s campaign, leaving allies split over the best way forward.
There is no evidence to support Trump’s claim that Biden sought to have a Ukrainian prosecutor fired to protect his son’s business interests in the country, although the appearance of a conflict is a problem.
Biden’s role in the impeachment drama ensures the matter will stay in the headlines, playing into Trump’s strategy to keep Biden on the defensive and at the center of melee.
Biden has been hitting back at Trump, most notably during a speech in Reno, Nev., this week in which he accused a “desperate and defensive” president of “smearing” his family.
The former vice president believes the attacks are borne out of Trump’s fears that he’d lose to Biden in the general election.
But Biden has signaled that won’t obsess over Trump and will try to stay the course with an issues-based campaign, even as some close allies warn that won’t be enough.
One close ally said that Biden must repurpose his campaign as a one-on-one fight against the president, or risk becoming another in Trump’s long list of political casualties.
“If he can start to drive a message that look, Trump is so scared of me he risked impeachment to try to take me down; that Trump and his allies are spending money on ads against me in the primary because they are scared that I will win and deliver results that scare them … that’s a message that will lift him in the primary,” the source said. “But he has to adapt to and deliver that message.”
Others close to Biden say that remaining disciplined and focused on issues important to primary votes is the best way forward.
At a fundraising event this week, Biden expressed worries about getting “sucked into the trap” and dragged down into a “mud fight” with the president.
Democratic strategist Karen Finney, who worked as an aide on Hillary Clinton‘s campaign, said Biden’s team is searching for the right balance.
“The balance here is that you want to stay out of it at certain times. They have to pick their spots,” Finney said, adding that Biden’s remarks at the gun forum struck the right tone. “You want to stay out of it to some degree, you want to let it unfold. You don’t need to be a part of the story. Let them implode. Don’t take the bait. Don’t get in the way.
“The challenge is to continue to be disciplined and sticking to your plan and rolling out your policy proposals,” she said.
While debate rages over the best course for Biden, Warren continues to climb, bolstered by small-dollar fundraising that Biden has been unable to match.
There is frustration in some quarters with Biden’s finance team and a growing realization that he’ll need to effectively double his quarterly hauls if he’s going to build an organization to compete with Warren, Sanders and Buttigieg.
“If they think they can get by with $15 million quarters, they’re wrong,” said the Democratic fundraiser. “It matters too much in building out a ground organization. You just can’t get by with a little more than half of what your rivals are raising.”
Still, Biden’s allies say they’re confident he can regain footing in the race, noting that four months in a chaotic primary is a long time for Warren, or any other challenger, to sustain momentum.
And they say they’re only in this tough spot because Trump views Biden as the biggest threat to his reelection.
“The reason we’re in this situation in the first place is because he knows if we get through this primary his presidency is over,” said the Biden ally.