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Former vice president Joe Biden. Matt Slocum/PA Images
No Show Like a Joe Show

Is Joe Biden the man to take on Donald Trump? His chances may not be as strong as they seem

Biden entered the contest as frontrunner, but how long will that last?

THE WORST KEPT secret in US politics was finally confirmed on Thursday when Joe Biden officially announced himself as a candidate for the presidency.

It’s Biden’s third run at the White House but by far his best chance, having been vice president since his last attempt in 2008.

But while the 76-year-old enters the crowded Democratic contest as a poll leader, he faces some big challenges if he does want to be the man to take on Donald Trump.

Firstly, Biden is actually a weak frontrunner.

Recent polls have shown that he leads the field of candidates by a relatively small margin compared to previous primary races. A Reuters poll of Democrats this week put nationwide support for Biden at 24%, ahead of Bernie Sanders in second place at 15%.

Other polls have put Biden at around 30%, but he’s actually behind in early primary states like New Hampshire.

Losing early voting states quickly erases someone’s status as a frontrunner, depriving them of a perceived inevitability that can be difficult to stop.

Biden’s announcement video displays a clear strategy that’s somewhat of a departure from other Democrats.

Biden devotes most of the video to speaking about Charlottesville and Trump’s reaction to it. He describes the president’s response as representing the “greatest threat” to the United States in his lifetime.

“If we give Donald Trump eight years in the White House, he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation,” Biden says, placing opposition to Trump at the heart of his candidacy.

For Democrats, this was exactly what they sought to avoid doing during their successful midterm campaign. In that instance, Democrats were more focused on issues like healthcare than getting caught up with Trump’s rhetoric.

This will be harder to avoid when Trump is actually involved, but the Democratic race so far has been marked by more discussions over policy than the president.

Most agree that allowing opposition to Trump become the dominant reason for voting for Hillary Clinton was a mistake.

“We spent, I think, way too much time on our side talking about him,” breakout candidate Pete Buttigieg said last month.

Biden’s video also said nothing about what he’d like to achieve as president beyond protecting the “idea” of America.

Contrast that with the platforms of Sanders and Elizabeth Warren who each have a defined pitch of progressive policies.

In some ways it was easier for Biden to be the frontrunner having not officially declared his candidacy and not proposed anything. Now that he has done so he will need to back that up.

He must also do that in a way that doesn’t make him look like out of step with an increasingly diverse party. As a white man who’s been a politician for 50 years, Biden will not be able to argue that he’s a fresh face.

biden Biden at a Senate committee in 1991. PA Images PA Images

That long career in politics also brings problems in itself.

Anita Hill, who was infamously forced to testify before Congress after alleging sexual advances by a Supreme Court nominee, this week criticised Biden to the New York Times.

Biden was chairman of the Congress committee at the time and has himself admitted that the way the hearing was handled was wrong. Hill told the New York Times that he reached out to her a number of weeks ago but stopped short of the apology she wanted.

Biden also stopped short of apologising after multiple women came forward recently to say that he had made inappropriate physical contact with them.

Both those issues present problems for Biden and it will be interesting to see if they are raised at any point by other Democrats when the primary campaign begins in earnest.

The first Democratic debates are in June and the first primaries will be in January 2020.

Despite these potential pitfalls though, Biden is leading in the polls for a reason and he could well be the man to beat.

First and foremost is his association with the Obama presidency. The president/vice-president relationship can often be one of convenience at best, but in the case of Obama and Biden there appeared to be a genuine warmth between then.

CNN / YouTube

Obama has frequently said that choosing Biden as a running mate was the best decision of his presidency and he rewarded him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

These bromantic notions from a popular presidency will no doubt remind Democrats of happier times.

Biden is also a native of Pennsylvania, a traditionally blue collar state that Trump won in 2016. Tactically speaking, Biden winning there in 2020 along with some neighbouring states would be enough to give him the White House.

And while Biden’s early focus on Trump may be a gamble, it could be one that pays off. In a crowded contest, positioning yourself as Trump’s main adversary could be a winning tactic.

Biden certainly has an esteem that the other candidates can’t match and early on he looks likely to use it.

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