OTTUMWA, Iowa — They praise his experience. They are hopeful about his general election prospects. He is often their first choice for president. For now.
But while Joe Biden tops the early polls in Iowa, on the ground there are signs that his lead is fragile in the state that kicks off the presidential nominating contest and often sets the initial tone for the primary campaign.
Interviews with Democratic Party officials across Iowa, and with nearly two dozen voters attending the former vice president’s five events here this week, reveal a candidate who enjoys deep reservoirs of respect and goodwill.
But officials and voters also indicate his early lead is driven in part by name identification, nostalgia for the Obama years and strategic calculations about how to defeat President Donald Trump, rather than primarily by enthusiasm for his campaign vision, which some struggled to define beyond calling it a return to pre-Trump normalcy and “dignity.”
There was also a palpable eagerness among some attendees at his events to learn more about the rest of the sprawling presidential primary field before committing to Biden.
“He’s our comfort blanket. I know him, trust him, and I feel he’s the one that can beat Trump,” said Nancy Urban, 50, who was standing in line at an events center in Ottumwa, in southeastern Iowa, before Biden’s first campaign event on a five-event, two-day swing.
Asked if Biden was her first choice, she let out a long sigh.
“I would say first choice at the moment,” she said. “But I’m still open.”
It was a refrain that came up repeatedly during Biden’s trip, his second to Iowa as a 2020 candidate. And it reflected the findings of a recent Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom Iowa survey, long considered the gold standard in Iowa polling. The survey found Biden maintaining a lead as the top choice of 24% of likely Iowa caucusgoers.
Among in-person likely Democratic caucusgoers, the poll also found that 29% of those who listed Biden as their first choice were “extremely enthusiastic.” For those who listed other candidates as their first choice, 39% said they were “extremely enthusiastic” about their choice.
“He still claims first place,” said J. Ann Selzer, president of the firm that conducted the poll. “But under the surface of that first place is kind of shaky ground.”
At Biden’s events this week, which also included a stop at a rural 4-H hall, a visit to a diner and trips to two college campuses, voters lauded his experience in government and in international affairs and expressed genuine affection for him. Some leaning toward Biden also acknowledged that their choice is shaped in part by familiarity with his record and story at a time when other candidates are still introducing themselves.
For voters like Don Burmeister of DeWitt, Iowa, that’s a valid reason to back Biden.
“There’s nobody out there any better,” said Burmeister, 80. “All these young hotshots coming out of the woodwork, we know nothing about them. He’s been in politics years and years, always a square shooter.”
But his wife, Judy Burmeister, wasn’t yet ready to commit. She “might vote for Joe,” she said, but she supported Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2016 and had high praise for Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, noting his fluency on television.
“Too many to choose from,” she said when asked why she was undecided.
Sean Bagniewski, the Democratic chair in Polk County, Iowa, said that “anybody in the race would kill to be in the position” that Biden is in — but added that some of Biden’s standing is driven by the celebrity factor that accompanies the former vice president, as well as name recognition, an advantage that could fade as other candidates become better known.
“Whether that means they’re caucusing for him,” he said, of the voters who clamor for selfies and autographs from Biden, “I genuinely don’t know.”
In interviews, voters who favored Biden for now but were unwilling to commit often pointed to the sheer size of the field and their curiosity about other candidates — especially those younger than Biden, who is 76, as well as those who embrace more boldly progressive policies. (Biden’s campaign faced headwinds again Thursday because of comments from 2006 in which he expressed reservations about abortion).
“I do like Joe. He’s not afraid to speak his mind, I think he represents the working class better,” said Mark Hutton, 66, a retired railroad worker and union leader, after a Biden event in Clinton, Iowa.
But he wasn’t ready to back Biden, saying he is also interested in Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Buttigieg and Sen. Kamala Harris of California.
“I’m looking at the overall Democratic Party, I think the younger generation wants a little more representation that they’d get from Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris; Elizabeth is on the border,” he said. He added: “I hate to say it, Generation X looks at age and thinks Joe might be too old.”
Biden has also faced criticism from local party leaders for having, until this point, a lighter footprint in the state than some of his competitors who announced for president before he did. In Iowa, he sought to laugh off some of the pushback.
“Now having been here before in Iowa, I’ve often heard, ‘By the way, I’ve only met you twice, why don’t you stop by a third time?’” he said to chuckles Wednesday in Clinton. “Mildly spoiled, but you deserve it.”
Biden has repeatedly played down polls showing him ahead, saying he recognizes that the race is a “marathon,” and he often says that it is legitimate to question the ages of all of the candidates.
“All I can say is, watch me,” he told reporters Tuesday, after Trump questioned his stamina and mental agility.
Biden brushed off a question from a reporter about voters who are interested in a newer face.
“Vote for a new person then,” he said. “Look, my job is not to be a political prognosticator. That’s not what I’m in this for; that’s not what I’m doing. It’s like, a young woman came up to me and said, ‘Why shouldn’t I vote for a woman?’ You should! Want to vote for a woman? Vote for a woman. That’s a fine thing to do. They’re equally as qualified as any man.”
“The question is,” he continued, “who is best prepared at this moment to handle the issues that are before us? Who is most likely to be able to beat President Trump? Because if that doesn’t happen, nothing changes.”
Biden’s campaign said that out of the 1,300 Iowans who attended events with Biden this week, almost 350 signed up for volunteer shifts, a rate that the campaign suggested was evidence of enthusiasm for his candidacy.
Biden “continues to build strong support throughout the state, including eight newly announced endorsements from influential Iowa political and community leaders, with many more to come soon,” said TJ Ducklo, Biden’s press secretary. He said Biden would be back several times this summer.
Biden has sought to rise above intraparty primary squabbles by keeping his focus squarely on defeating Trump, an effort to cast himself as the Democrat best positioned to win the general election. Voters at his events who did say they were inclined to support Biden often pointed to his perceived ability to beat Trump.
“We want someone who can win,” said Jim DePriest, a schoolteacher in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, who said his support for Biden was “pretty solid.” “His sheer experience, common goodness. He’s a really good man, and right now we could use a really good man.”
But not everyone sounded convinced of his ability to win.
“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t like him,” said Doris Tuller, 81, who attended an event with Biden in a stuffy room at Iowa Wesleyan University. “There’s so darn many, I just don’t know who’s got the best chance at winning. I think Biden has the majority right now, but who knows. Plenty of time for that to change.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.