Whether Biden's gaffe is an old problem or a new one, he needs a fix

Analysis: The former vice president, and current Democratic front-runner, can't afford for voters to see him as an unpredictable risk.

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By Jonathan Allen

WASHINGTON — Former Vice President Joe Biden was quick to try to clean up his latest campaign trail slip-up Friday by pivoting to a counterattack on President Donald Trump.

Trump and Republicans are hitting him because "they need to divert" from the second anniversary of the fatal white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, he said.

There was good reason to shift the spotlight back to Trump.

Even though he quickly corrected himself, Biden's brief conflation of poverty with race — "poor kids are just as bright and talented as white kids," he said Thursday night — reinforced doubts about his candidacy while blurring the contrast Democrats are drawing with the president.

He handed Republicans a talking point on race, which serves at least as a distraction from the Democratic message that Trump is fueling white supremacy. More consequential for his own prospects, Biden reminded voters that, even after months back out on the campaign trail, he is prone to tripping over his own tongue in politically perilous ways.

His challenge is to show that he is the candidate for this moment. Giving voters flashbacks to past bloopers won't help him do that, nor will any suggestion that he's lost a step. And after staking his candidacy on the idea that he is the most electable of the Democrats, Biden can ill afford for voters to see him as an unpredictable risk.

Democratic strategist Adrienne Elrod said she believes Biden's flub is a minor foul, but one he'd prefer not to have committed.

"It does speak to the fact that we’ve always known that Joe Biden is gaffe-prone," Elrod, who is an MSNBC contributor, said. "It’s part of his charm, but for him, does it remind people of his age and how long he’s been around?"

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For Biden, the best answer to that question would be that the remark was an anomaly for the improved version of the candidate who ran twice before. Because the other possibilities are that he's the same Biden, who was given to gaffes — or even that he is something less than that guy.

Trump said Friday that Biden isn't "playing with a full deck."

Biden's campaign snapped back that Trump's deck is "all jokers."

But Republicans also rushed to point out, amid the president's race-baiting re-election effort, that Biden has a long record of uttering racially insensitive thoughts, and spoke fondly earlier this year of his relationships with segregationist senators.

"This isn't a one-time gaffe, it is a pattern for Biden," Steve Guest, the rapid response director for the Republican National Committee, wrote in an email to reporters.

In that way, Trump made the case that Biden isn't as good as he used to be, while the RNC argued that he hasn't changed a bit. Biden needs to convince Democrats — and then the overall electorate — that he's better than he was before. Or at least, he needs to make Democrats believe he's better suited to beat Trump than any of his rivals for the nomination, and then get the majority of voters in the right number of states to think he's better than Trump.

On Friday, he got a little help from his friends: most of the other Democratic candidates refrained from a major pile-on.

But not everyone stayed out of the fray.

New York Mayor Bill De Blasio, a long shot candidate for the Democratic nomination, used the moment to question whether Biden allies' argument that he is the party's most electable candidate in a matchup with Trump is grounded in the idea that winning requires insensitivity to certain segments of the population.

"To quickly dismiss @JoeBiden’s words as a mere 'slip of the tongue' is as concerning as what he said," De Blasio wrote on Twitter. "We need to have a real conversation about the racism and sexism behind 'electability.'"

Elrod said that during a period of heightened sensitivity, and in an era of viral soundbites, it's particularly important for candidates to pay close attention to what they're saying on matters that involve race.

"You’ve just got to be real careful how you articulate these things," she said, adding that she believes Biden's team "handled it well" afterward.

During remarks Friday, Biden restated his point from the previous night.

"We have to make sure every child, every child gets a great education, regardless — regardless — of their race," he said. "Not just wealthy white children, but all children — poor, rich, whatever their background — get an education."

One way Biden could demonstrate to voters he's a new and improved version of himself is to nail that kind of easy-to-deliver statements the first time.

Asked Friday whether he would be able to undergo an entire campaign season featuring the sort of scrutiny he's endured this week, Biden was pragmatic. "Yes. I have to," he said.

On the question of whether the stumbles would determine his electability, he was less definitive: "Well, that's gonna be determined pretty soon, won't it?"