Bill Barrow and Alexandra Jaffe
WAUKEE, Iowa (AP) — With four days until the Iowa caucuses, Joe Biden is looking beyond his Democratic rivals and taking square aim at President Donald Trump as the two men campaign within miles of each other on the same day.
"In November, America will have the chance to answer the question: Does the character of a president matter?" Biden said as he delivered a sweeping address on why Trump must be defeated. "I don't believe we are the dark angry nation that Donald Trump sees in his tweets in the middle of the night," Biden later added. "America is so much better than this."
Biden ticked through reasons he believes Trump is a threat "to our core values" and added a policy checklist he would use against the president in a hypothetical fall campaign: health care, climate action and gun regulation topping the list.
"I can hardly wait to debate this man," Biden said. Set against the backdrop of Trump's impeachment trial in Washington, Biden's address represents his latest attempts to fend off an onslaught of GOP attacks over his son's business overseas as the former vice president looks to reassure Democrats that he's the party's best option to oust Trump at the ballot box. The president himself plans a nighttime rally in Des Moines.
Biden, since his April campaign launch, has run what looks like a general election campaign against Trump, but it's an especially striking approach days before Democrats' 2020 voting begins with Monday's caucuses. The former vice president was deep into his speech before tacitly acknowledging that he'll have to win the nomination before being able to take on Trump directly.
"I am asking you to caucus for me. I need your help," he said.
Trump and Republicans, meanwhile, have made clear a fall campaign would be a bruising exercise for Biden and his family. The GOP has amplified its allegations against the former vice president in recent days, accusing him of nepotism and worse in a series of charges stemming from the impeachment case against Trump.
In his final Iowa tour this week, Biden has opted to embrace the GOP offensive. He's openly mocked Florida Sen. Rick Scott, a Republican, for running a digital ad in Iowa that repeats Trump's discredited theories about Biden's work in Ukraine as vice president and his son's private business dealings there. The ad came a day after Trump's impeachment defense team repeatedly framed Hunter Biden's tenure on an energy firm's governing board as the real corruption in need of investigation.
"A senator from Florida, sitting in Washington, has decided to start running negative ads against Joe Biden just days before the Iowa caucus," the elder Biden said Wednesday in Sioux City. "What do you think that's about? Look, it's simple," he said, returning to an oft-used line: "They're smearing me ... because they know if I'm the nominee, I'm going to beat Donald Trump like a drum."
Biden has made a guaranteed laugh line out of remarks from Iowa's Republican Sen. Joni Ernst. She emerged from the Senate proceedings earlier this week to wonder aloud to reporters "how this discussion today informs and influences Iowa caucus voters. ... Will they be supporting Vice President Biden at this point?"
In Sioux City, Biden thanked Ernst for "screaming the quiet part into the bullhorn."
"She spilled the beans, didn't she?" Biden said, laughing. "The whole impeachment trial is about whether or not the president tried to interfere in the choice of a nominee for the Democrats."
Biden adviser Anita Dunn was even more pointed, saying of the Scott ad: "We'll pay him to keep it up." Biden campaign manager Greg Schultz told The Associated Press, "This is all a help to us" because it valid Trump's fear.
That's quite a turn from October, when the Biden campaign sent letters to Facebook, Google and Twitter pressuring the online platforms to block ads from Trump's reelection campaign that contained similar debunked allegations against the Bidens.
"We are going to call out the lies. We are going to confront him," Dunn said of how Biden will handle Trump going forward.
Yet there are Democrats who see the Biden controversy as a replay of 2016. In that campaign, Trump deflected myriad stories of his own conflicts of interests and business dealings by hammering away at Democrat Hillary Clinton, her use of a private email server as secretary of state and the foreign contributions to the Clinton Foundation created after her husband Bill Clinton's presidency.
"Whether there's anything to it or not, there's going to be a lack of trust and doubt that we could end up like we did four years ago," said Iowa Democrat Emma Thompson, 63, who is considering caucusing for Biden, but is also considering Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg and Andrew Yang.
These aren't perfect parallels. During the Trump-Clinton campaign, the FBI was actively investigating whether Clinton or her aides subjected classified material to disclosure, and the agency did not close the case — without any criminal charges — until well after Trump was in office. There has been no evidence of wrongdoing by Biden or his son. The elder Biden's efforts to oust a Ukrainian prosecutor reflected the consensus of the U.S. government and its Western allies. And there's no evidence the U.S. government has ever actively investigated Hunter Biden's dealings at Burisma, even under Trump's Justice Department.
Still, Vicky Rossander, an Iowa caucus precinct captain for Sen. Amy Klobuchar, said she's wary: "I don't want to spend the whole election hearing about Burisma and Ukraine."
Associated Press writers Thomas Beaumont in Mason City, Iowa, and Sara Burnett in Chicago contributed to this report.
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