Democrat Joe Biden’s cautious US presidential campaign faces its most unpredictable challenge yet in Tuesday’s debate against Donald Trump — a setting with potential for explosive exchanges and one the ex-vice president has struggled with before.
Biden, who leads in polling barely five weeks before the November 3 election, is expected to aim for calm confidence while presenting himself as an empathetic unifier to a polarized nation.
But he also signalled his fists will be up, telling MSNBC Friday that “The people know the president’s a liar.”
“I’m prepared to go out and make my case as to why I think he’s failed and why I think the answers I have… will help the American people,” Biden added.
He may need to steel himself against a barrage by a provocative president who has repeatedly accused Democrats, without evidence, of “rigging” the election and stated he may not abide by its results.
While Trump races from one rally to another slamming Biden’s “radical socialism,” Biden is a diminished presence on the campaign trail.
Mindful of coronavirus restrictions and dangers, the veteran Democrat’s handlers have insulated him from crowds of voters, guiding him towards delivering speeches to reporters or occasionally visiting battleground states for small-scale events.
Biden has offered tough criticism of Trump’s pandemic response and assailed the president’s repeated falsehoods about mail-in ballot fraud.
But suddenly the challenger and White House defender will be on stage together in Cleveland, with fireworks the likely result.
“It’ll be like watching a pay-per-view boxing match,” University of Akron political science professor David Cohen said.
Biden, 77, no longer cuts the same figure he did as Barack Obama’s deputy. Though the megawatt smile remains, his gait is more delicate and his fine white hair thinned.
Trump, 74, regularly calls Biden “Sleepy Joe” and accuses him of diminished mental acuity, but the strategy could backfire if Biden performs well.
The former vice president’s record in debates has been shaky.
In early primary clashes he was often shouted down and crowded out by younger, more boisterous rivals, but as the field shrank, Biden fared better and his empathy came through convincingly.
– Reassurance vs bombast –
Scarred by tragedy and in the twilight of a long career, Biden is betting he can win over Americans tired of his polar opposite Trump.
The brash realtor Trump brought bombast to the White House, but Biden offers reassurance, a self-proclaimed unifier with blue-collar roots and a personal rapport with voters.
He is riding into the debates pledging action on climate change, jobs, racial injustice, student debt relief and expanded help for families suffering from the coronavirus pandemic’s effects.
Elected one of the youngest US senators ever, Biden served for over three decades in the upper chamber and launched two failed White House bids before his eight years as deputy to America’s first black president.
Biden’s message is built largely on his association with the still-popular Obama and his moderate politics in a divisive time.
But where he stands out is in showing a very human side, contrasting with Trump’s all-conquering, never-doubting style.
Biden’s first wife, Neilia Hunter, and one-year-old daughter, Naomi, died in a car crash in 1972 while Christmas shopping, just weeks after Biden won election to the Senate.
The accident left his sons Beau, 4, and Hunter, 2, badly injured, and the 30-year-old Biden was sworn in beside their hospital beds.
Biden met his second wife, teacher Jill Jacobs, in 1975 and they married two years later. They have a daughter, Ashley.
Both boys recovered from their injuries and Beau followed his father into politics, becoming attorney general of Delaware, but the Democratic rising star died of brain cancer in 2015 at age 46.
– The other son –
Biden relays the heart-wrenching details of his family stories so often that, despite his obvious grief, they have become part of a political brand.
His younger son Hunter is another matter.
Lawyer and lobbyist Hunter Biden got a lucrative salary serving on the board of a Ukrainian gas company accused of corruption while Biden was vice president.
Trump’s pushing of Ukraine to investigate Hunter’s past led to the president’s impeachment, although he survived the scandal.
Joseph Robinette Biden Jr was born November 20, 1942 and raised in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in an Irish-Catholic family. His father was a car salesman.
Biden touts his working-class roots and recalls being hampered as a child by a stutter so bad he was cruelly nicknamed “Dash”, but he overcame the condition.
As “Uncle Joe,” he is known for his folksy manner, but he also has a propensity for gaffes, and Biden’s decades-long political career could make it easy for Trump to highlight missteps.