WESTERVILLE, Ohio — In each of the first three presidential debates, Joe Biden was the target — the clear frontrunner whom other Democrats were trying to take down a peg or two.
And that’s where Biden found himself Tuesday night at the fourth debate. Polls show he’s still a frontrunner. But Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has surpassed or tied with him in some state and national polls, and many of the other candidates on stage shifted their combative attentions to her.
Over three hours at Otterbein University, Biden was often an afterthought.
It wasn’t a terrible spot for him. The swampy story of his son’s business dealings overseas while Biden was vice president — a subplot of the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump — was dispensed with quickly, within the first 20 minutes. Rather than being on the defensive constantly, Biden got to lean into strengths, such as his foreign policy experience, and flex his more progressive credentials on gun control and women’s reproductive rights.
The night could have gone differently for Biden. Tuesday began with ABC News airing its exclusive interview with Hunter Biden, who conceded that he exercised bad judgment by serving on the board of a Ukrainian natural gas company while his father was the Obama administration’s point person on Ukraine. The younger Biden also acknowledged that his father’s stature created business opportunities for him. (“I don’t think that there’s a lot of things that would have happened in my life,” he said, “if my last name wasn’t Biden.”)
Trump and his allies have made false and unfounded accusations that both Bidens behaved illegally or improperly. CNN’s Anderson Cooper, one of the debate’s moderators, emphasized that reality Tuesday while also asking Joe Biden if he agreed that his son had shown bad judgment.
“Look, my son's statement speaks for itself,” said Biden, who avoided giving Cooper a direct answer both times he was asked the question. “I did my job. I never discussed a single thing with my son about anything having to do with Ukraine. No one has indicated I have.”
None of Biden’s rivals made an issue of it. A few even came to his defense.
“We are literally using Donald Trump's lies,” New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who at past debates criticized Biden, said the next time he was called on. “And the second issue we cover on this stage is elevating a lie and attacking a statesman. That was so offensive.”
For weeks now — as his once sizable lead in the polls shrunk into a close race with Warren — Biden has campaigned increasingly on terms of engagement set by Trump. His message has morphed into a series of reactions, each one a little tougher than the last.
When reports first surfaced that Trump had asked Ukraine’s president to investigate the Biden family while delaying US aid to the country, Biden vowed to settle things at the ballot box: “I’ll beat him like a drum.” (He repeated that line at Tuesday’s debate.) After Trump called Biden and his son “stone-cold crooked,” Biden issued a forceful condemnation in Reno, Nevada. But few people saw that speech, delivered after hours on Pacific time. And the next day Trump called on China, too, to investigate the Bidens. So Biden gave another speech, this time calling unequivocally for Trump’s impeachment. The day after that, Trump teed up a Minnesota crowd by taunting: “Where’s Hunter?”
The days between then and Tuesday’s debate saw Biden unveil a government anti-corruption plan and promise not to employ his relatives in his administration if he wins — a clear shot at Trump, whose daughter and son-in-law work in the White House in senior roles. Meanwhile, Hunter Biden announced his resignation from a Chinese company and sat down for the ABC interview.
“Since the last debate, there's been a remarkable number of developments that have underscored something Joe Biden has said since he got into this race: Another four years of Donald Trump will forever alter the fabric of this country,” a Biden campaign adviser told BuzzFeed News a few hours before the debate. “And now, we're learning the extraordinary lengths Trump will go to make sure he doesn't have to run against Joe Biden.
“Trump is trying to distract from the fact that he has turned his back on working families. But Biden won’t be distracted from the issues that are impacting working families.”
Julián Castro, the former Housing secretary who attacked Biden at the last debate, said in a telephone interview last week with BuzzFeed News that he had no plans to ease up on Biden. But he said attempts to discredit Biden over his son’s work in Ukraine would be out of bounds.
“I disagree with Joe Biden on health care, on immigration, on other issues,” Castro said. “I fundamentally believe that he is an honorable man and an honest public servant.”
In the end, Castro didn’t take any shots at Biden on Tuesday. There were some scattered exceptions, but few others did. Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, said he disagrees with Biden that Trump represents an aberration in American politics. And Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont criticized Biden for voting for the war in Iraq.
“You got the disastrous war in Iraq done. You got a bankruptcy bill which is hurting middle class families all over this country. You got trade agreements like NAFTA and PNTR with China done, which have cost us 4 million jobs,” Sanders said.
The most significant Biden exchange came in the final hour, when he joined the attacks on Warren. He criticized her (and Sanders) for being vague on how much her Medicare for All plan would cost. That set up a brief but pointed clash of dueling ideologies: Biden’s tempered and institutional incrementalism vs. Warren’s big structural change.
Biden became visibly agitated when Warren talked about her work setting up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau during the Obama administration. Turning to his left to face Warren, Biden noted how, as vice president, he helped whip the votes needed to approve the agency.
“I am deeply grateful to President Obama, who fought so hard to make sure that agency was passed into law,” Warren responded with a slow cadence — and an emphasis on Obama’s name that seemed meant to minimize Biden’s role — before adding that she was “deeply grateful to every single person who fought for it and who helped pass it into law.”
“You did a hell of a job,” he said, “in your job.”