As 2020 Democrats fight for attention, Biden keeps his focus on Trump

By Caitlin Huey-Burns, Adam Brewster, Bo Erickson

/ CBS News

Biden ramping up attacks on Trump in Iowa

Davenport, Iowa – Nearly 20 Democratic presidential candidates fanned out across Iowa over the past couple of days. But when Joe Biden landed in the Hawkeye State Tuesday, he had his eye on only one competitor: Donald Trump.

The two 70-something rivals fanned across the state on the same day, offering a split screen moment that could, if Biden has his way, serve as a preview of a general election campaign — never mind that the Iowa caucuses are still more than 230 days away.

Each had the other on his mind. In a new addition to his stump speech, Biden called the president "a fundamental threat to America." And before boarding Air Force Once to travel to Iowa, Mr. Trump called the current Democratic frontrunner "the weakest mentally" and said the other candidates have "much more energy."

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Both revelled in occupying the other's attention. "He was someplace in Iowa today and he said my name so many times people couldn't stand it anymore," Mr. Trump said of Biden during a speech in Des Moines.

"I guess he's really fascinated with me," Biden told a gathering in Mount Pleasant after he learned his speech in Ottumwa earlier in the day was carried live by Fox News, which the presidential candidate watched aboard his plane. "I hope Donald Trump's presence here is making a clarifying moment for us all," he said in Davenport.

OTTUMWA, IA – JUNE 11: Former vice president and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks to attendees during a campaign event on June 11, 2019 in Ottumwa, Iowa. Joshua Lott / Getty Images

Biden couldn't have scripted the day better himself, particularly as he garnered criticism for the slow pace of his campaign schedule and after his rivals seized upon his absence from Iowa over the weekend to try gain momentum.

The former vice president has so far paid little attention to the other Democrats in the race. In Davenport, he told the crowd he missed the weekend events with the other 2020 contenders to attend his granddaughter's graduation, and revealed he and his family spent the afternoon celebrating with the Obamas. The story had an intended purpose, reminding voters here of his closeness to the former president, whose surprise caucus victory here in 2008 supercharged his campaign.

Biden told reporters in Mount Pleasant that intraparty fighting is "only going to make it easier for Trump to win." And asked about his debate prep, he downplayed the stakes. "This will be an appearance more than a debate. I am told we have one minute. I will go out there and say why I'm running and what I stand for."

The dueling visits came as a new Quinnipiac University poll shows Biden leading Mr. Trump nationally in a hypothetical matchup by the widest margin of the other contenders, and a CNN-Des Moines Register poll finds Biden leading the Democratic pack.

Additionally, internal polling from the Trump campaign found the president trailing Biden in some key battleground states. Two of the three counties Biden visited Tuesday were won by Mr. Trump in 2016. In Henry County, for example, he focused his pitch on ways he believed Trump's economic policies failed them.

But conversations with voters throughout the state over the past several days and underlying polling data reveal support for the vice president is soft, and that while the race is beginning to gel, it is far from set.

Many voters who came to various events had not yet committed to a candidate, telling CBS News they were still in the listening phase. And some acknowledged that while they would support Biden if he were to become the nominee, they were drawn to the other contenders.

"My problem with Joe, he's just an old pair of shoes to me. He's comfortable but I want youth. I think Joe is too old. I think Trump's too old. And I think Bernie is too old. I'm looking for someone young," said Chris Johnson, a 69-year-old retiree who attended a Kamala Harris event in Dubuque, but has not settled on a candidate.

"I love Joe. I think 2016 would have been a really great year for Joe. I'm not looking for an old man over the age of sixty that has had their chance to do things, and that to kind of not be the generic old white man that you always see in our politics," said Hannah Simpson, a 28-year-old pre-school teacher, who said she liked Elizabeth Warren and Steve Bullock. "I think he is a great person and I respect everything he's done. But I don't think that's what we need right now for our country."

Others weighed Biden's vulnerabilities. "I like that he's very authentic, I feel like his values represent my values," said Lynn Ellsworth, a retired archivist from Mount Pleasant. But she said she was concerned about "his age and whether he's going to be in tune with younger people. I think it's time for younger people to make their voices heard, because they are coming up."

"He's probably the best chance we've got, but there's a lot of really good people," said May Swarm, another Mount Pleasant resident. "He's been around for a long time — that's an advantage and a disadvantage."

Swarm continued, "But we need to somebody who knows how to be presidential, that's for sure. And he does that."

Electability against Mr. Trump and restoring "dignity" to the office is central to Biden's campaign pitch. And it helped to convert at least one uncommitted voter. Susan Simmons, a customer service representative from Bettendorf told CBS that after seeing Biden in Davenport, "he rose to the top, way above the rest." Simmons grew teary-eyed, saying "I could just cry for the fact he understands we need to bring dignity back to the office."

And his visit to the state attracted at least some interest from Trump supporters like Darren Willson, a Danville resident who works at a distribution center. Wilson said he voted for Barack Obama in 2008 but chose Trump in 2016, and that he came to Mount Pleasant to hear what Biden had to say. "I think Joe is a good guy. I don't think there is anything wrong with him," Wilson told CBS. "If he is here to represent all people, that's awesome."

But Wilson wasn't yet ready to leave the president. "When the Democrats were in office, I had better benefits, I had better pay. But, I like the way Trump is handling immigration. I like the way he is handling other things."

First published on June 11, 2019 / 11:18 PM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Caitlin Huey-Burns

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a political correspondent for CBSN

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