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OPINION

Post-convention challenges Biden faces

By CARL P. LEUBSDORF | The Dallas Morning News | Published: August 21, 2020

Joe Biden’s choice of Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate and this week’s national party convention are giving the Democrats their biggest burst of positive national publicity in many months.

Along with continuing negative fallout from President Donald Trump’s mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic and the postal mess, it means the former vice president will likely maintain or even increase his lead, both nationally and in key battleground states.

But Biden still faces some of his biggest challenges if he is to make Trump the first one-term president in nearly three decades. Here are the main ones:

 Establish a stronger state presence. Limited so far by his own pandemic-imposed restrictions on campaigning, Biden needs to find a way to strengthen his political presence in those key battleground states, whether on television or in person.

In particular, he needs to build on the convention’s efforts to show he has a detailed agenda to fight the pandemic and fix the economic fallout, and that his campaign is about more than replacing Trump.

So far, he has benefited from the paucity of errors in his Delaware-based campaign, and negative views of Trump’s presidency. However, Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and their array of surrogates have been far more visible in the states likely to decide the election.

Just this week, Trump himself carried his anti-Biden message to four of those states, including Monday’s appearance in Wisconsin — the state where the Democrats were ostensibly meeting — after Biden decided because of the virus not to go there to accept his nomination.

That enabled Trump to liken the situation to the 2016 campaign dynamic in which Hillary Clinton’s failure to campaign enough in Wisconsin, Michigan and central Pennsylvania might have cost her those three normally Democratic states.

Trump’s campaign has also undertaken a robust in-person campaign in these states, knocking on millions of doors to press the case for his reelection. Biden’s campaign made a strategic decision to forgo that kind of traditional campaigning on grounds it would be ineffective amid the pandemic.

The Democrats have staged virtual campaign events in key states, such as last week’s call in which top Texas Democrats and Biden campaign representatives urged Gov. Greg Abbott and other top Texas officials to slow their drive to reopen schools at a time of declining COVID-19 testing and continued high number of infections.

One post-convention possibility would be for Harris to go to places Biden has avoided to contrast how much more seriously he takes the pandemic than Trump.

 Prepare to use the debates to convince the doubters. Biden needs to spend plenty of time preparing for what certainly will be a relentless Trump onslaught in their three debates, starting on Sept. 29.

Because he is behind, Trump needs a debate boost to change the election dynamic. But Trump’s best hope is for Biden to perform poorly enough to increase doubts among his less committed supporters.

Biden, however, is an experienced debater, having participated in a string of encounters during the 2008 and 2016 Democratic nominating battles, plus vice presidential debates against Sarah Palin in 2008 and Paul Ryan in 2012. He knows the issues. But he has never confronted an opponent as relentless as the president, who has shown in his 2016 debates with Hillary Clinton and his almost daily confrontations with the press how he continually attacks, rarely waits for a response.

The 77-year-old former vice president will also have to step up his energy level to counter the “Sleepy Joe” tag Trump has sought to hang on him and the past-his-prime image in some Trump ads. He’ll also need to maintain his cool, regardless of what Trump throws at him during the 90-minute sessions.

Debate preparation has to be Biden’s top personal campaign priority, given the massive television audiences and the potential for high-level impact.

 Prepare for legal combat against barriers to voting. The Biden campaign will need a robust legal presence in battleground states to counter a potential string of legal challenges from GOP lawyers to the validity of individual ballots and the qualifications of individual voters.

The Democrats also need a massive education effort to ensure their voters cast their ballots in time to be counted. This is an election Biden may have to win twice, once at the ballot box on Nov. 3 and, if he succeeds, then again in the courts against Trump legal challenges.

Two of these three priorities, establishing a stronger state presence and countering Trump legal challenges, exemplify how the 2020 campaign differs from any before it.

They explain why, in 2020, Joe Biden may have to do more than win the debates.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is a former Washington bureau chief of The Dallas Morning News.