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The coronavirus pandemic halted Joe Biden’s steady march to the Democratic presidential nomination, and now allies are conflicted over whether the former vice president has found his footing in the basement of his Delaware home to face the reality of the new campaign landscape.
Banned from the campaign trail and stalled by a string of primary election postponements, Biden finds himself in the tricky position of being the almost Democratic presidential nominee but without a consistent stage. He’s struggled to maintain a high profile befitting a presumptive nominee as President Trump commands the bully pulpit for the nation’s pandemic response and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo emerges as the most visible Democrat in America for now via his daily briefings.
To top it off, Biden still can’t shake Sen. Bernie Sanders, who seems determined to pursue his campaign as long as possible, even though Biden has a powerful delegate lead.
“The only a--hole doing damage to the party is Bernie Sanders,” said Joe DiSano, a Democratic political consultant based in Michigan. “He's not going to win. He's wasting time. Every minute that Joe Biden spends focused on Bernie Sanders is one less he's spending on Donald Trump.”
Biden allies and Democratic strategists interviewed by Fox News lamented the fact that Biden was on the cusp of the nomination but has been delayed in any effort to galvanize the party given the global crisis. While no one interviewed by Fox News overtly sounded alarm bells about the state of the Biden campaign, they expressed uncertainty about the trajectory of the election given the massive X-factor of the deadly coronavirus.
“The economy tends to determine a lot of voter behavior," said Hank Sheinkopf, a longtime New York political consultant who has worked for former President Bill Clinton and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. "But if you put the economy together with more people dying -- if this continues into June -- the stress on the president will be very, very significant. If the economy starts to lift and the pandemic starts to subside, well then he [Trump] can claim victory.”
Trump is enjoying an uptick in approval as many Americans rally around the flag during the COVID-19 response and Biden can’t be seen fighting the commander-in-chief too aggressively during a war-like footing. Trump has captured the 2020 oxygen by holding lengthy daily press briefings on the virus response. Denied his raucous rallies, Trump uses the White House briefing to take jabs at Biden, Democrats and the press.
“I think people have forgotten who Biden is," said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y. "When he does make the occasional appearance he screws it up. Biden is almost yesterday’s man already. All the luster of the primary wins is gone. Trump is the guy who is out there. He’s the one people see. He’s the one in charge. And the fact that he’s out there every day reassures people.
'Obviously there is no playbook for this.'
King added: "Whatever faults Trump has are faults he’s had all along – he exaggerates and all that – but he shows himself to be alert and knows what’s going on, while Biden just looks confused. I like Biden. He seemed to be on a bit of a roll, but now he’s just disappeared. I think Obama or even Trump would have found a way to stay in it, but he’s just disappeared.”
Biden's campaign and his allies dispute such claims.
Off the campaign trail and stuck at home like most Americans, Biden retooled his outreach to become digital. He's now podcasting to speak directly with voters, holding virtual fundraisers, participating in TV townhalls and hosting targeted online forums, including a happy hour with young voters.
“I think you'll continue to see us experimenting with different kinds of new digital formats,” Biden national press secretary T.J. Ducklo told Fox News.
“Obviously there is no playbook for this, but I think you've seen us take some big steps to adjust over the last couple of weeks and do a lot of things that have been pretty effective as far as adapting to these circumstances but still accomplishing the same objectives of the campaign which is to reach out to voters, have the vice president engage with voters, build our coalition and expand the kind of the community of supporters that we have,” Ducklo said. “We've been doing that.”
As Biden has beefed up his media presence, it hasn't always gone smoothly. His first major Illinois virtual town hall ended after five minutes due to technical difficulties and Biden walking off-screen. He has verbal hiccups. In an appearance on MSNBC, he mistakenly referred to the epicenter of the coronavirus by the wrong name -- "Luhan Province" instead of the city of Wuhan in China.
He even got scolded by CNN's Jake Tapper for coughing during an interview and covering his mouth with his hand. "You're supposed to cough into your elbow," Tapper said, then demonstrating the proper technique to minimize the spread of germs.
Still, Biden allies argued it's no time to get anxious yet about November, calling Trump's bump in approval ratings "mild" and likely temporary.
“There's a mild rally around the flag effect but, I mean, that's only to be expected, " DiSano said. "In fact, I think the fact that it’s so statistically insignificant speaks to the polarization that Donald Trump causes. By the way, we'll see how soaring in the polls Donald Trump is when there's 200,000 body bags filled across this country."
“The early days of this pandemic were a disaster, politically, and from a public health perspective," DiSano added.
But former Obama adviser and campaign manager David Plouffe said Trump's supporters will not be deterred by the coronavirus pandemic and struggling economy, which makes the incumbent "very dangerous" to Biden.
"You look at the economic situation and say, 'How can an incumbent win in that?' But, you know, no one's blaming Trump for the damage," Plouffe told the "Fox News Rundown" podcast. " ... I think if you can lay his crisis response at his feet and connect that to the economy, I do think that's some headwind he's got to run into."
"But," Plouffe continued, "almost no matter what happens, [the question is] can Donald Trump win Wisconsin? Can he win Michigan? Can he win Pennsylvania? Can he win Florida?' Sure, because his base is so solid. And I think he's going to turn out voters almost at a historical level on his behalf, so that makes him very dangerous if you're Joe Biden.
"There's nothing he [Biden] can do about it. He's not in office. He's not a governor. He's not the president. And truthfully, [New York Govornor] Andrew Cuomo, [California Govornor] Gavin Newsom ... Donald Trump, citizens want to hear from those folks because they're the folks making decisions."
Polling shows that voters overwhelmingly view Biden as more trustworthy than Sanders to lead in a national crisis. And in a head-to-head matchup with Trump, Biden is still winning by an average of 6 points, according to national polling.
Biden and Democrats are making the case that Trump was too slow to respond to the threat -- especially on securing supplies and testing kits -- and was dishonest with the American public by downplaying the threat.
Biden’s message is two-fold: telling voters how he’d handle coronavirus differently if he were in charge and being an emotional cheerleader to struggling and sick Americans, connecting with them through past bouts of grief and loss.
“The vice president has a unique talent for retail politics -- talking to people, connecting with people, [working the] rope line. That's very much his unique strength, his superpower as a politician. The goal is to do everything we can to translate that to the virtual world,” Ducklo said.
Without an event-driven media schedule -- with debates and primary night victory speeches shelved -- the campaign is ramping up to near-daily TV and radio appearances.
The campaign believes the strategy is breaking through as people are home from school and work and have time to watch TV and engage online.
Between March 14 and March 28, Biden had 20 million viewers through virtual events and digital content on Facebook, Instagram and You Tube, according to the campaign. He’s also continuing to spend about $100,000 a day on Facebook ads that are bringing in campaign fundraising dollars.
But Michael Ceraso, a Democratic strategist, said a “be everywhere” strategy doesn’t fit in today’s political climate, as voters are taking care of the sick, dealing with their isolation and loneliness and worrying for their loved ones scattered across the country.
“They are searching for relief from their anxieties. Voters aren’t asking, ‘is Biden going to be on [Jimmy] Fallon tonight?’” said Ceraso, a veteran of the 2016 Sanders campaign and the 2020 Pete Buttigieg campaign.
Ceraso said the halt to the campaign leaves Biden both protected and vulnerable to the changes to the primary calendar and Sanders’ ability to capitalize on a moment.
“It also leaves Biden open to his political liabilities and vulnerabilities to be scrutinized and recycled in the press,” Ceraso said. “The more he talks, the more he can be attacked. There is a lot of time to undermine his hold on the nomination.”
Biden allies have downplayed Trump’s boost in popularity -- up to 49 percent approval in the Gallup Poll -- as modest compared with past national emergency surges. President George H.W. Bush's approval spiked to 89 percent after the success of Operation Desert Storm and President George W. Bush's approval hit 90 percent post-Sept. 11, 2001 attack. Biden supporters expect voters will come home to Biden in November as the most-trusted candidate to lead a crisis.
"When it's all over and people begin to look around, I think Biden is going to look even better in comparison," said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo. "I don't think he's trying to do anything right now to upend the president, which is appropriate. I think people are going to take that into consideration.”
“It would be awkward and tacky for Biden to try to get on television every day to criticize the president,” said Cleaver, a prominent Biden ally, adding that “Biden has never been much of a TV hog.”
Cleaver acknowledges that the most prominent Democrat in the country right now is Cuomo, who is at the heart of the pandemic response in New York, though he doesn't think the governor, a Biden backer, would do anything to upstage the likely Democratic presidential nominee.
“The history books will record that the person who was most instructive on this [coronavirus] issue in the country is Andrew Cuomo,” Cleaver said. “….The amazing thing is the whole country is now tuning in to Andrew Cuomo.”
Biden has a long relationship with the Cuomo family and views the governor's support as an important asset on the campaign going into the fall, according to a Biden adviser.
While Trump has tried to run against "socialism" and paint the Democratic Party as too lefty, a Biden and Cuomo alliance could counter that talking point -- especially to Catholic voters in key states of Pennslyvania, Ohio and Michigan, Sheinkopf said.
"What Joe Biden and Andrew Cuomo represent together is the moderate middle," he said.
Biden has to tread carefully during this time too by not going on the attack against Trump, strategists say, because it can backfire and Biden needs to stay as "apolitical" as possible. Biden even conceded Friday that Trump was right to close down travel from China at the start of the outbreak.
Still, his campaign has been critical of Trump's response. If Biden has tried to avoid blunt attacks on Trump, outside groups have gone for the jugular. In one blistering ad that Trump wanted pulled off the air, Priorities USA juxtaposes Trump's repeated statements downplaying the seriousness of the virus ("One day, it's like a miracle, it will disappear") with a graph showing the sharp increase of coronavirus cases in the US. "America needs a leader we can trust," the ad says.
Meanwhile, staying under the radar may have some advantages for Biden. New gaffes may not break through to the broader electorate.
“There’s an upside to every crisis,” DiSano said. “Less press attention means less chance for misplaced words.”
What Biden needs to focus on now is using this time to shore up the left flank of the party, reaching out to Latino communities, organizing for November and raising dollars, DiSano said.
His campaign said Biden continues to reach out to the progressive flank of the party with phone calls, young voter virtual events and the adoption of policies including Sanders' student loan forgiveness plank and Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s bankruptcy plan.
The biggest downside for Biden is his campaign is frozen in time as the primary calendar and convention have been postponed and his weekly victory speeches from winning primary states have halted.
“As you finish a national primary campaign, you get a really great opportunity to roll yourself out during the course of the calendar to the entire country,” DiSano said. “Now with the coronavirus, we lost essentially half the contests, or a third of the contests. So he missed that media honeymoon."
Biden allies say the situation could be worse.
"While I think this would have been a disaster for almost any candidate, maybe perhaps someone new, fresh on the scene, this would be a worse problem than it is now," DiSano said. "But everyone knows Joe Biden. Everyone's opinion of Joe Biden's already formed. So the effect of this is a negative, but it's not the negative it would be for someone else.”
Chris Moyer, a Democratic strategist and veteran of the 2016 Hillary Clinton presidential campaign and the 2020 Cory Booker presidential campaign, said "the good news for the Biden campaign is that people know Joe Biden, his middle-class values, and how he'll fight for workers and families."
Prior to the crushing pandemic that shut down schools and businesses and sickened hundreds of thousands of Americans, Biden had been trouncing Sanders in a string of impressive wins that started with a comeback victory in South Carolina and dominance on Super Tuesday by winning 10 of 14 primaries.
“The fact that Biden [had] these blowout primaries before COVID-19 took the front pages is not going to be forgotten," Cleaver said.
Biden's campaign points to big voter turnout numbers in Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Michigan and parts of Missouri as a sign of incredible enthusiasm that will carry through November.
"You'll continue to see us do what needs to be done … to bring everyone together to present a united and strong front against Trump in the fall," Ducklo said.
Fox News' Paul Steinhauser and Yael Halon contributed to this report.