Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden has become the center of gravity in the Democratic presidential race since he announced his 2020 bid last month, fundamentally altering the contours of the primary and leaving other candidates to navigate the dust cloud in his wake.
His rallies and speeches earn presidential-level coverage on cable, and President Trump himself appears consumed with Mr. Biden, treating him as the likely rival, even disparaging his IQ during a visit to Japan.
The other Democrats in the 2020 race, meanwhile, are having to choose between an antagonistic or conciliatory approach, each of which carries downsides for those struggling in the polls and looking to stand out. It’s all the more complicated because of Mr. Biden’s chief claim to fame — having been the right-hand man to President Barack Obama, who remains a revered figure across the party’s electorate.
“I think it is tricky. How do you take an opportunity to draw a distinction favorable to you without being seen as attacking Joe Biden?” said Kathleen Sullivan, a member of the Democratic National Committee from New Hampshire. “And you don’t want to sound whiny about the fact you are being asked all these questions about Joe Biden.”
At a Washington Post forum this month, Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, was asked three Biden-related questions shortly after taking the stage: Does he agree with voters who say Mr. Biden earned the 2020 nomination? Does he believe Mr. Biden symbolized a political system voters had rejected? And did Mr. Biden blow it by authoring the 1994 Crime Bill?
“I can’t help but get the impression that there is more interest in one of my competitors than any of the others,” Mr. Buttigieg said with a smile, sparking laughter from the crowd.
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For the most part, the candidates have tiptoed around the chance to launch a negative attack against Mr. Biden. But they’ve struggled to get out their message without getting hit with a question about the former vice president.
In recent interviews, Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana, Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio and Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado have been asked why they would be a stronger nominee than Mr. Biden. Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont has been grilled over why he has slipped in the polls since Mr. Biden entered the race, and Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California has had to dismiss all the chatter about her being a great fit as Mr. Biden’s running mate.
Mr. Buttigieg, at the forum, sought to both deflect and distance himself from Mr. Biden by pointing to one of the former longtime senator’s signature accomplishments, the 1994 crime bill that some sociologists blame for a generation of incarceration.
“Look, I wasn’t there for the crime bill debate. I mean I was there, but I was 12, and it was not a priority for me,” the young mayor said.
Mr. Biden’s pole position in the race and his lengthy record make him a natural target for those kinds of jibes.
“It’s not always fun being a front-runner,” said Eric Fehrnstrom, who was a top aide to 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
“You wake up every morning with a big target on your back. The media is gunning for you. Your opponents are planting negative stories,” Mr. Fehrnstrom said. “Every slip-up or gaffe becomes magnified.”
Even before Mr. Biden joined the race, cable news talking heads debated the pitfalls of his candidacy. Now that he’s in, the questions have only intensified: Is he is too old and too white for the gig? Will his off-the-cuff style hurt him? And can his record of bipartisanship and his electability message connect a party base looking for a confrontational liberal champion?
Mr. Biden’s team has kept him in controlled public environments so far, and he’s been trading shots with Mr. Trump, who’s treating him like the presumptive nominee.
There’s good reason for that. He carries a 17-point lead over his closest competitor, Mr. Sanders, in the RealClearPolitics average of polls.
Still, there’s evidence his gravitational pull is already waning. That 17-point lead is down from a 27-point lead he held two and a half weeks ago, amid a post-announcement surge.
Going wire-to-wire with the lead could be tricky in such a massive field, especially with the first caucuses and primaries eight months away.
“The problem for Biden is that there’s so long to go before the first voting takes place,” Mr. Fernstrom said. “When that happens, it’s hard to escape the feeling you’re like a giant balloon that is slowly deflating with time.”
“On the other hand, it’s easier to raise money as a front-runner,” he said. “You can seize control of the discussion, and your phone calls get returned.”
The first major test for Mr. Biden will come next month at the first debate of the primary.
Ms. Sullivan said she anticipates sharper attacks against Mr. Biden.
“There is going to be somebody or somebodies who will be negative, who will be critical, who think that is their ticket to get into the story and get attention they are not getting — particularly if you are not getting coverage form the cable news people,” she said. “So there is that temptation, and I think there will be someone or someones who do that.”