MASON CITY, Iowa – On a snowy morning just days before Iowans make their choice in the Democratic presidential contest, Joe Biden invoked President Ronald Reagan, warning a small crowd that the nation was at risk of losing its identity as “that shining city on the hill."
Reverence for Reagan might seem off-key for someone trying to win the Democratic nomination. But Biden's tribute demonstrates his closing argument before the Feb. 3 caucuses: reclaiming common ground is key to defeating President Donald Trump.
The former vice president's approach will face its toughest test this week in Iowa, the state that has dashed his White House ambitions twice before. His progressive rivals — Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — often emphasize their eagerness to fight. And Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has gained support with a positive vision that's similar to Biden but conveys a youthful approach unburdened by decades in Washington.
Biden is hardly the first Democrat to praise a Republican. Barack Obama also spoke warmly of Reagan, much to the chagrin of some Democrats. In the current campaign, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota joins Biden in declaring admiration for the late Sen. John McCain. And Warren herself was once a Republican.
But Biden argues he's the only Democrat up to the task of unifying a deeply divided country.
“The next president is going to have to bring us together,” Biden said in Mason City after mentioning Reagan. “I know that among many of my colleagues who are seeking the nomination, that’s not viewed as a realistic possibility.” But, “we have to be able to pull the country together, not just the Democrats, but independents and Republicans, as well.”
At a separate event in Ames, Biden went harder.
“Our Constitution is built in a way that literally it cannot function unless we are able to arrive at consensus," he said. “That’s what I’ve done my whole life.”
That convinced Paul Hanson, a farmer in Cerro Gordo County.
“I feel like Biden is prepared to go in and make things happen immediately,” said Hanson, 69. “Maybe we need just to steady the ship.”
Still, the measured approach, delivered in Biden’s matter-of-fact, even hushed tones, doesn’t ignite large rallies like Sanders’ populist broadsides against “the establishment” and “the billionaire class.” There's little acclamation as when Warren calls for “big, structural change.” Even the 38-year-old Buttigieg wows crowds with promises of generational change.
“I’m not sure Biden can excite young people enough. It’s just time for someone else,” said Michelle Holt, a school librarian who joined a crowd of about 500 to hear Buttigieg in the college town of Cedar Falls.
In Mason City, Hanson shrugged as he surveyed a crowd measured in the dozens: “When I came to see Bernie recently there were five times as many people.”
Iowa polls, though, show Biden jumbled with Sanders, Buttigieg and Warren. “Any of the four could finish in any order,” said Kurt Meyer, chairman of the Tri County Democrats in northern Iowa.
Biden’s campaign has long said he doesn’t have to win here, given that Iowa’s overwhelmingly white population doesn’t reflect the national Democratic electorate. His path to the nomination, the argument goes, runs through more diverse states like Nevada and South Carolina, the third and fourth nominating contests. Another slate of states with significant minority populations follow in March, when Biden’s advantages among non-whites would come into play.
The impediment, of course, would be Biden finishing far enough off pace in Iowa and then New Hampshire to spook his donors, embolden rivals and dent his national support before those later primaries. That scenario is even more threatening as billionaire Mike Bloomberg, the former New York mayor, spends vast sums in Super Tuesday states to saturate airwaves with an argument much like Biden’s. Even if Bloomberg couldn’t overtake Biden, he could peel off mainstream Democrats, limiting Biden’s delegate count.
Biden’s team acknowledges those possibilities but maintains the “consensus” message will succeed in Iowa and prove durable beyond. The argument also acts as an umbrella for the rest of Biden’s sometimes-scattershot approach.
On Iowa television, his ending pitch is anchored on electability — the idea Biden is best positioned to defeat Trump. “He beats Trump ... in the states we have to win,” declares a Biden ad running in Iowa’s five largest TV markets. “This is not time to take a risk.”
His closing digital ads feature Iowans. “Joe Biden’s been tested,” declares one. Another says Biden “has been through the fire” and can “be that commander in chief that we need.”
While campaigning, Biden projects related themes. In Ames, he touted his role in key legislation: the Violence Against Women Act, the 2009 economic recovery bill, the Affordable Care Act in 2010, cancer research investments at the end of the Obama administration, after Trump’s election. In Osage, Biden offered the regular reminder that he’s “met every world leader for the last 40 years” and could start “repairing alliances ... the day after” the election.
Biden has begun arguing more forcefully that his brand can help Democrats in Senate and House races, while Sanders and Warren would cost Democrats elections and, consequently, legislative victories. “Everybody running this time has big plans, big ideas,” Biden said. “But you know, they don’t mean much unless you can make them work, unless you can bring them to fruition.”
He recently spent a day traveling with Pennsylvania Rep. Conor Lamb, who flipped a Pittsburgh-area House district that Trump had won by 19 percentage points. Lamb said there was just one national Democrat he wanted with him alongside “the coal miners in the deep corners of my district and the steelworkers and the teachers and nurses.” When Biden came, Lamb recalled, he attracted “the people who got away from us in 2016.”
Tying those arguments together, according to Biden allies, is empathy, a personal trait that Biden sees as an asset not just in campaigns, but for governing. He noted it in Mason City, when a voter asked him about a recent video capturing how an elevator operator at The New York Times building reacted when Biden greeted her. “I love you ... you’re my favorite,” she gushed as Biden traveled up the Manhattan skyline to meet the newspaper’s editorial board.
Biden called it a reminder that “empathy matters,” as he took the small-but-rapt audience back to his “humiliating” childhood experiences as a severe stutterer.
“When you stutter badly, you are really — people make fun of you,” he said. “They think you musn’t be very smart. ... It’s easy when you’ve been on the other end of something to know what it feels like for somebody going through a tough time” and to remember that “everybody’s entitled to be treated with dignity and respect."
The Times’ Democratic primary endorsement ended up split between Warren and Klobuchar. Biden didn’t make the top four. But his encounter with a working-class voter reached viral status online, depicting what Biden hopes is a wide electoral reach. If he's right, his coalition could include even those voters once identified closely with a Republican: “Reagan Democrats.”