2020 Election
Presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden and Christie Vilsack in Ames, IA on Jan. 21, 2020. Photo by September Dawn Bottoms for TIME.
September Dawn Bottoms for TIME
January 31, 2020 4:27 PM EST

In the final days ahead of the Iowa caucuses, former Vice President Joe Biden is looking past his Democratic opponents and sharpening his critique of the man he hopes to run against this fall, telling crowds that the very soul of the country is in peril if President Donald Trump wins another four-year term.

As he rolls through snowy Iowa, Biden is projecting a curious mix of confidence, power and optimism. He largely ignores his rivals, offering only glancing blows against them as big dreamers or neophytes who would need on-the-job training. Instead he’s fast-forwarding to the main event, casting Trump as a belligerent bully in some of his strongest language yet.

By rhetorically speeding past Iowa’s lead-off caucuses next week, Biden is assuming the role of front-runner and the aura of inevitably that comes with it. It was a tactic Hillary Clinton adopted in 2016. Her critics saw it as arrogance. Her defenders saw it as reality.

Joe Biden community event in Osage, IA on Jan. 22, 2020. Photo by September Dawn Bottoms for TIME.
September Dawn Bottoms for TIME

But it is hardly a given that Biden’s fellow Democrats will pick him to go head-to-head against Trump this fall. He is locked in a wide-open contest here in Iowa, where polling averages suggest Senator Bernie Sanders is the favorite in a close race. Biden’s foothold in the following week’s contest in New Hampshire is uncertain at best, with Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren boasting formidable political machines and hailing from neighboring states. And Nevada’s could be a test for Biden, a state where Hispanic voters hold equal power to working-class unions. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that a candidate such as Sanders could sweep the first three states.

Biden’s decision to cast Trump as his main foil also sets him apart from the field of Democrats. Former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg has begun criticizing Biden and Sanders as relics from a generation past its prime. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is not participating in Iowa’s caucuses, has been blanketing airwaves nationwide with a message about taking technocratic competence to Washington. And Sanders and Warren are preaching a gospel of structural revolution, casting themselves as the antidote to entrenched Washington creatures like Biden.

Biden’s advisers believe he remains positioned to perform well enough to grind out enough delegates and arrive at the Democrats’ nominating convention in Milwaukee as the presumptive nominee—if not a leading contender at a contested convention. Biden is already telegraphing that he would be a feisty debating partner against Trump, whose defeat matters more to Democrats here and nationwide than ideological purity. Biden’s advisers argue that Biden’s decades in public life have made him a known quantity among voters and his familiarity and stability are strong selling points no one in the race can match.

Speaking in a packed school gymnasium in Waukee, Iowa, on Thursday, Biden previewed his caucus-closing argument, calling the choice a referendum on Trump’s character. “Does it matter if a President lies? Does it matter if a President has no moral compass? Does it matter if a President believes he or she is above the law? Does it matter if the President is petty or mean or spiteful? Does it matter what the character of the President is?” Biden asked.

“Over the course of this presidency, Donald Trump has proved he believes the answer to each and every one of these questions is no,” Biden continued. “Ladies and gentlemen, in November, American will have a chance to answer the question: Does the character of a President matter? Yes, or no?”

It is a line expected to feature prominently on Monday at Iowa’s 1,600 caucus sites, the church basements and school cafeterias where Iowans will literally pick a candidate’s corner to stand in.

Polls and voter interviews suggest Biden’s perceived electability is a primary draw for many Iowans. At a Thursday afternoon event in Newton, one voter asked of Biden what he was seeking in a potential pick for Vice President, a role he knows well after eight years as President Barack Obama’s understudy.

“To me, there are a lot of qualified people, including people who are running for the nomination now, as well as at least another eight to 10 women I can think of off the top of my head — not a joke,” Biden said. “I can think [of] off the top of my head five people of color who are in the same exact position, who are not running for President or some who have recently run for President. So there’s a lot of quality to pick from as the nominee. But, ultimately, it’s going to have to be someone who I agree with.”

Biden then remembered that not a single person in the country has cast a vote for Biden to this point. “It’s presumptuous to even have this conversation. I’m not the nominee yet,” he said.

Biden’s swagger suggests he expects that to change soon enough.

Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com.

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