Politics

On the campaign trail in Iowa, Biden and Trump take aim at each other

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden, left, takes a moment to speak with Cheri Scherr of Pella about immigration after a town hall meeting, Tuesday, June 11, 2019, in Ottumwa, Iowa. (AP Photo/Matthew Putney)
Matthew Putney/Associated Press
Joe Biden spoke with Cheri Scherr of Pella, Iowa, about immigration policy after a campaign event in Ottumwa, Iowa, on Tuesday.

OTTUMWA, Iowa — As President Trump flew to Iowa on Air Force One Tuesday, his favorite cable network, Fox News, carried Joe Biden’s remarks from the campaign trail live in the cabin.

Trump watched the Democratic presidential candidate sharply criticize his angry tweets, tariff war with China, and temperament, calling the president “an existential threat to America.” This was shortly after Trump blasted Biden to reporters on the White House lawn as “weak mentally.”

It was an acrid start to a whirlwind day as the two politicians traversed the crucial early-voting Midwestern state, trading barbs in a boisterous potential preview of a divisive presidential election .

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“This is a guy who does everything to separate and frighten people,” Biden, who has been leading in early primary polls, told a group of Iowans. “It’s about fear and loathing. The names he calls? No president does something like that.”

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Later, he said the president appeared “fascinated” with him, while Trump accused Biden of saying his name “so many times” that people got fed up.

As Trump and Biden traded insults, one could be forgiven for momentarily believing the 2020 general election had already begun. Both candidates appeared to have eagerly cast each other as their foil, with cable news rapidly switching between feeds of them attacking each other in a dizzying scene that recalled the height of the 2016 Hillary Clinton-Trump race.

For Biden, the strategy fits with his attempt to fly above the fray of a heated Democratic primary of two dozen candidates, many of whom have set their sights on him as their main target. For Trump, focusing on Biden means nine extra months of defining the Democratic field’s leader in early polls before the primaries even officially begin. The president is set to officially kick off his campaign with a rally in Florida next week.

“I’d rather run against, I think, Biden than anybody,” Trump told reporters before departing for Iowa, where he toured an ethanol plant in Council Bluffs and later attended a fund-raiser. “The others have much more energy.” He suggested Biden, 76, had lost his touch. “He acts different than he used to. He looks different than he used to,” Trump asserted.

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“Joe Biden is a dummy,” the president, 72, said.

For Biden, the fight is preferable to duking it out with his democratic rivals. He has largely brushed off barbs from the left, including veiled critiques from Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who have suggested he won’t fight to implement liberal policies and could be beholden to the interests of wealthy people who hold fund-raisers for his campaign.

Biden said Tuesday he doesn’t believe Democrats should criticize each other. “I think it’s a gigantic mistake if Democrats — 20 or whatever number we have — go after each other,” he said. “It’s only going to make it easier for this guy to win.”

But Biden has seized on the fight with Trump, filling his stump speeches with blistering critiques of his governing style.

Biden told a group of Iowans on one of his three stops in a swing through the southeastern part of the state that he welcomed Trump’s simultaneous visit.

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“I hope his presence here will be a clarifying event,” he said. “Because Iowa’s farmers have been crushed by his tariff war with China.”

Biden also blasted the president for tweeting insults at actress Bette Midler and London Mayor Sadiq Khan earlier this month while overseas to celebrate the 75th anniversary of D-Day. “I believe he’s a threat to our core values,” Biden said.

But despite the cable news split screen, Biden still faces a tough primary battle. A recent Des Moines Register poll suggests many of his Democratic rivals — particularly Sanders, Warren, and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg — are hot on his heels in Iowa, which Biden has only visited twice since officially launching his campaign in April.

Biden skipped a gathering of 19 Democratic presidential candidates in Des Moines last weekend, instead attending his granddaughter’s high school graduation. And he’s faced criticism for sticking to a relatively relaxed campaign schedule compared to many of his rivals.

“It seems like he’s kind of coasting a bit,” said Dick Fenton, a retired John Deere employee who came to see Biden speak in Ottumwa. His wife, Nancy Fenton, agreed. “I hardly feel like he’s running,” she said.

The other president Biden mentions nearly as much as Trump is Obama. Biden peppers his speeches with stories about his time with the former president he frequently refers to only as “Barack.” He promises to restore the country’s reputation abroad and decency in politics, leaning on Democrats’ nostalgia for the Obama years.

While his mentions of Obama garner huge applause, there’s a potential drawback to the strategy if Biden doesn’t also lay out a forward-looking vision.

“I have never been part of any election campaign in my life where it was not about what’s next,” said Sue Dvorsky, the former chair of the Iowa Democratic Party, who is uncommitted in the race so far. “Everyone is very keenly aware that Biden did a great job as vice president, but he’s not running for vice president.”

But some of Biden’s fans said they were comforted by the former vice president’s connection to Obama and the soothing message of continuing his agenda.

“There’s something about Joe Biden that just makes me feel safe,” said Rosalie Jarvis, a 72-year-old retired social worker from New London.

“I liked him with Obama,” said Peyton Nelson, a 21-year-old from Ottumwa who said she liked Biden’s focus on restoring “normalcy” of the Obama years.

Biden assured Iowans on Tuesday he will work hard for their votes. “I’m going to spend an awful lot of time in Iowa,” he said in Mount Pleasant. He grabbed the mike and walked toward the crowd as he vowed to “earn your respect and earn your vote.”

“You’re the ticket to whether or not we get to pass go on the Monopoly game,” he said.

Liz Goodwin can be reached at elizabeth.goodwin@globe.com.