HAMPTON, N.H. — Former vice president Joe Biden cruised into New Hampshire Monday as the early front-runner of a sprawling presidential field, greeting voters who donned his old campaign buttons or clutched copies of his books, eager to embrace the familiar he represents.
But instead of basking in a warm welcome — as a typical favorite is wont to do — Biden used his first visit to the Granite State as an official 2020 contender to defend his long record in public life from a laundry list of critiques of his policies on criminal justice and the environment that have shadowed him since he entered the presidential race late last month.
“There’s a whole lot of talk about, you know, Biden and the crime bill, Biden wrote a crime bill,” the Delaware Democrat said, alluding to his role in developing the 1994 law that created new gun restrictions and crime prevention measures but now is blamed for contributing to mass incarceration.
Biden is running, he told crowds in a packed pizza parlor here and an airy community college space in Manchester, to “restore the soul of this country,” and he drew heavily on voters’ nostalgia for the Obama administration in which he served.
But Biden’s long record in public life has also provided fodder for his critics and primary opponents seeking to knock him off his perch atop the polls, and Monday’s events were an early test of how he plans to address them.
Biden was particularly keen to rebut criticism of his environmental record and pending proposals, following a Reuters report late last week that said he would pursue a plan that was much less ambitious than the expansive Green New Deal that most of the Democratic candidates support. In response, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders tweeted, “There is no ‘middle ground’ when it comes to climate policy.”
Biden did not mention Sanders in New Hampshire on Monday, but he brought up the Reuters article twice on the campaign trail and said he was working on a climate change bill as early as 1987.
“I was in this area long before anyone else was,” Biden said, vowing to give a more detailed speech on environmental policy at the end of the month. “We do need to finish this Green Revolution in a way that’s rational.”
Biden also spoke at length about his work on women’s issues, which may have been intended to respond to a series of complaints from women about his touchy-feely political style and his treatment of Anita Hill when she accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 1991.
“No man has a right to put his hand on a woman without her knowing consent,” Biden said Monday, adding that he introduced the Violence Against Women Act in 1990.
“What I’m most passionate about is doing something about abuse of power,’’ Biden said.
In some ways, Biden’s efforts to defend himself were a contrast with his front-runner status in New Hampshire. In a Monmouth University poll released last week, Biden’s 36 percent support was double Sanders’ second-place total of 18 percent.
In Biden’s previous runs for president, in 1988 and 2008, he dropped out before even reaching the New Hampshire primary. Biden had been considered a potential candidate in 2016 while serving as President Obama’s vice president. But Biden said Monday that he never would have run against eventual Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton because “she’s my friend.”
Despite not setting foot in the state in more than two years while other Democratic candidates have visited frequently, Biden returned Monday with more endorsements from prominent local politicians than anyone in the race. Those backing Biden range from former New Hampshire governor John Lynch to former representative Carol Shea-Porter, who retired last year.
Although he has near-universal name recognition among Democrats, Biden talked about personal aspects of his biography, including the death of his first wife and daughter in a car accident in 1972 and the 2015 death of his son, the Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, which became a moment of national grief.
Speaking at a rally in front of several hundred voters in Manchester, Biden denigrated President Trump’s reference to the state as a “drug-infested den” during a call with the president of Mexico in 2017. New Hampshire has been in the grips of the opioid crisis for several years; that year, 424 people died from opioid overdoses.
“I don’t raise it to point out what he said, but about what he meant,” Biden said, adding, “He just doesn’t get it.”
He added that, if Trump was successful in his efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which passed while Biden was vice president, the opioid crisis would only get worse.
For veteran New Hampshire Democratic activist Terry Shumaker, Biden’s return bookends decades of presidential primary politics. Shumaker was among Biden’s earliest supporters when he first ran for president in 1988.
“It really couldn’t be more different from how he began back then to how he starts the campaign this time,” said Shumaker, who served as US ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago in the Clinton administration. “Back then, he was this young senator few people knew. Now everyone knows him. Let’s put it this way: When I call around the state to drum up support, it is much easier to do.”
Hundreds of voters lined up at both stops to see the former vice president, and many said they were drawn less to any specific aspect of his platform than a general feeling that he alone, in a sprawling field, was best equipped to defeat Trump.
Jack Polidoro, 75, drove over an hour from Gilmanton to see Biden. Polidoro said he was open to supporting Biden for one reason: the perceived ability that he could defeat Trump in the general election.
“Biden already appears to be getting the union support and the money. He may well be the guy and I wanted to check him out,” said Polidoro.
Mindy Musumeci, 52, a contractor who had driven up from Massachusetts, said Biden’s familiarity — and his call to reset America’s political culture — was more appealing to her than candidates who are making transformative promises.
But others wondered if Biden would ultimately be combative enough to take on Trump, who has already called Biden “sleepy” and “creepy.”