DES MOINES — One speaks reverentially about taking America back and “restoring” its traditional soul. The other practically shouts his call for a working-class "revolution” against corporations and the wealthy.
Wielding these strikingly different messages and styles, former vice president Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders — white men pushing 80 who have spent decades in Washington — have overcome initial skepticism that either could triumph over fresher faces running for president. Instead, both candidates are atop the national polls less than a month before voting begins in Iowa, a state where they are in a three-way tie for first with former mayor Pete Buttigieg, with Senator Elizabeth Warren close behind.
The Iowa results could scramble Biden’s or Sanders’ national leads, quickly reshaping the contest and opening the door to other candidates. But if the two hold their edge and the race narrows quickly, what many thought would be a fight among a new generation to lead an increasingly diverse Democratic Party could instead turn into a battle between two wizened politicians who have been selling their respective governing visions for decades and have struck out three previous times between them in seeking the presidency. It’s an outcome few were expecting.
“I’ve always thought that people underestimated Biden’s strength and also underestimated Bernie from the beginning,” said Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist who ran Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign.
Sanders is proceeding as if the primary has already come down to him and Biden, as he trains most of his fire at the former vice president in interviews and on the debate stage, including recently highlighting their differences over the 2003 Iraq war in the wake of renewed Middle East tensions.
“It’s just a lot of baggage that Joe takes into a campaign, which isn’t going to create energy and excitement,” Sanders told The Washington Post earlier this month.
Biden, who continues to best Sanders in national polls, thanks in part to his support from many black voters, shrugged off the comment. “You’re not going to get me into a fight with Bernie,” he said. “Bernie’s got enough baggage.”
As the septuagenarians debate precisely how much baggage either has, President Trump has begun to prepare himself to face one or the other, reportedly asking friends which one they believe would be easier to beat.
At recent town halls in Iowa, the vast differences in the two politicians’ styles and messages were on display. Voters who back Biden repeatedly referred to him as a “safe” choice they believe could beat Trump with a more moderate message of unifying the country, while Sanders’ supporters painted Biden as the reincarnation of Hillary Clinton, lacking the voter enthusiasm needed to beat the president that their candidate has.
“I think if Biden were to win the Democratic nomination, it’d be the same situation as Hillary Clinton, and Trump would win,” said Amelia Napiorkowski, 25, who came to hear Sanders speak in eastern Iowa last weekend.
Her brother, Ian,23, agreed. “Biden offers no meaningful change,” he said.
Those who saw Biden speak the next day, however, said they appreciated his softer style, which they believe would provide a winning contrast to Trump.
“I like the way he reaches out and empathizes with people,” said Liz Bauch, 65, who got a hug from Biden after his speech. “He’s kind of like Mr. Rogers compared to some people whose names I won’t give. That’s reassuring.”
Some Democrats are wary that a showdown between Sanders and Biden would only deepen the divisions within the party that were exposed in the 2016 race, with the center and left flanks bickering.
“I’m just really hoping that things don’t go down the way they did four years ago with that split between Bernie and Clinton,” said Tim Grover, 62, who is leaning toward Biden.
Even the atmosphere of the two front-runners’ events conveyed the “safety” of Biden compared to the message of outsider change Sanders brings. Biden was introduced by a litany of local elected officials and staffers who praised his long record, while Sanders’ crowd was warmed up by a women’s folk act, a local business leader who praised Sanders for never answering to corporations, and a volunteer for the campaign who accused the media of being controlled by corporate interests.
Before Sanders took the stage at one event, an older couple briefly danced between the aisles. Some members of the crowd sported graying ponytails, cowboy boots, creative facial hair, and Bernie-themed socks and T-shirts.
“We’re not real mainstream,” Iowa voter Kerry Dolan, 66, said of Sanders’ supporters. “We’ve seen what mainstream has done to this country.”
In contrast, there was a more establishment feel to Biden’s somewhat quieter events last weekend. In place of folk music, his Saturday night Des Moines town hall started with “God Bless America” and the Pledge of Allegiance. One of his field organizers called the former vice president “the healer in chief we so desperately need.”
David McElvogue, a retired steelworker in the crowd, said he is more attracted to Sanders’ policies and blunt style but had decided to back Biden because he believes he has the better shot at unseating Trump.
“First and foremost, we gotta get rid of that punk in Washington,” McElvogue said.
That’s a theme Biden himself hammered on after he walked in an hour behind schedule to cheers, and mouthed “wow, this is amazing” at the standing-room crowd that packed an elementary school gym on a Saturday night.
“Look — that’s what I’ll do as your presidential nominee — unite the country,” he said as he paced the rope-line perimeter at the center of the gym. “Because guess what? We can’t do it any other way. The way our whole system is built — it’s built on requiring a consensus to be reached.”
Unlike Sanders, Biden delivers most of his standard campaign speech in a soft tone, preaching the need to “restore the soul of the nation” by bringing the country together, with multiple appeals to “folks” sprinkled in.
He raised his voice only at the very end of a shortened version of his standard speech, when he extolled the potential of the country.
“This is the United States of America!” Biden yelled. “There’s never been a time — never, never, never, and it’s not hyperbole — when we’ve set our mind to something [and] we’ve been unable to accomplish it.”
The crowd whistled and cheered as Biden told them, “It’s time to get up and take back this country!”
The night before, in a somewhat bare fairground building in Decorah, Sanders revved up the crowd by calling Trump a “pathological liar” and a “bully,” but quickly moved on to calling for foundational change to the country’s economy and political system, punctuating his points by stabbing his finger in the air in different directions.
“The average worker is not making a nickel more than he or she did 45 years ago and that is not acceptable!” Sanders almost yelled, calling wealth inequality “obscene” and laying the blame for the predicament at the feet of “the whole damn one percent” as the crowd cheered.
Sanders dismissed people who call his ideas — from free four-year college to a nationalized health insurance system — “radical” and painted a picture of a country that had gradually come around to his liberal presidential platform from four years earlier.
“I’ll tell you what’s radical. Giving tax breaks to billionaires, that’s radical,” he said.
By the end, Sanders had a standing ovation.
But it’s not just their messages that are profoundly different. One of the most striking contrasts between Biden’s and Sanders’ political styles is how each handles what comes after their standard speeches. Biden appears to love the chaotic melee with voters along the rope line, while Sanders, a more disciplined and scripted candidate, keeps the informal hoopla as short as possible.
After answering a few questions Saturday night, the former vice president charged into the crowd, his aides frantically trying to shift the barriers that surrounded him to stave off the chaos of dozens of people crowding him for selfies.
“Saved my life, that’s a fact,” Biden said to one voter, and then put his hands on the shoulders of an older woman before slowly kissing her on the cheek. “Let’s do it!” he said to a young couple, and posed for a photo with them.
After his town hall the night before, Sanders shook a few voters’ hands, expressionlessly signed a piece of paper thrust in front of him by a fan, and then stood and smiled for a handful of rapid-fire photos. After just a few minutes, Sanders quickly made his way to the back exit, where his new campaign bus waited for him.
“I wanted to get a picture with him,” one woman complained to her friend. Another voter showed off a selfie he managed to get: He’s smiling directly at the camera while Sanders’ blurry head exits the right side of the frame.
Sanders told the crowd he would have stayed longer but he had an hour and a half ride to the next stop.