Donald Trump and the man currently favoured by the polls to defeat him in the 2020 presidential race have traded barbs in the crucial state of Iowa – the two septuagenarians sometimes sounding like slightly obsessed teenagers.
Before he left the White House to speak at a Republican dinner in West Des Moines, the president questioned Joe Biden’s mental health. “I like running against people that are weak, mentally,” he told reporters. “I think Joe is the weakest up here.”
On route, he stopped off to visit an ethanol plant in the town of Council Bluffs, where he took the opportunity to insult Mr Biden further, calling him “sleepy” and declaring that the former vice president had released a speech in which he name-checked the president 76 times. “He said my name so many times that people couldn’t stand it anymore.”
Meanwhile Mr Biden, who made several stops before delivering a keynote speech at exactly the same time Mr Trump was speaking, took the opportunity to launch a series of attacks, in which he said the president was “an existential threat to America”.
At a rally in Davenport, a city in the east of the state and located alongside the Mississippi River, 180 miles from where Mr Trump spoke, Mr Biden did indeed mention the president’s name often.
“You know, Donald Trump and I are both in Iowa today. It wasn’t planned that way,” he said “But I hope Trump’s presence here will be a clarifying event. America’s farmers have been crushed by his tariff war with China. No one knows that better than Iowa.”
He added: “Donald – it’s not about you. It’s about America.”
A recent polls by Quinnipiac suggested Mr Biden, 76, would defeat Mr Trump, 72, by as many 13 points, with Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Pete Buttigieg all also beating the president.
For all his talk, the Trump campaign is said to see Mr Biden as its most serious challenger, which is why the president is already trying out nicknames to insult his rival with, much as he did fellow Republicans during the 2015-2016 primary, and Hillary Clinton, once she was the Democratic candidate.
“His whole campaign is to hit Trump,” the president said. “When he mentions my name that many times, I guess I should be complimented.”
While he may be leading the Democratic pack, Mr Biden also has a lot of work to do. The most recent polls show he retains a lead, on 24 points, in Iowa, but that the gap between himself and other Democrats is slipping.
And while the Mr Biden has sought to keep his campaign focussed on a possible showdown with Mr Trump, he has not been able to avoid the pitfalls that come with fighting a primary consisting of perhaps the most diverse group of candidates, in terms of age, views and backgrounds, ever assembled for a US presidential election.
Last week, Mr Biden stumbled on the issue of abortion, when he initially said he supported the so-called Hyde Amendment, a piece of legislation originally passed in 1976 that bocks the use of federal funds to pay for abortions except in certain cases. Amid an outcry from women’s groups and progressives, Mr Biden flip-flopped, but the incident led many to consider his views were out of touch with the current thinking of the Democratic Party.
On Sunday night, in a taste of what awaits him as the primary proceeds, his Democratic rivals took aim at him, albeit without naming him. Mr Sanders, 77, told a state party dinner that “the same old politics will not” beat Mr Trump.
Mr Buttigieg, the mayor South Bend, Indiana, mocked the idea of Democrats returning to the views of the 1990s. “We’re not going to win by playing it safe or promising a return to normal.”
Iowa’s primary, scheduled for 3 February, marks the first chance anybody in the nation has to cast a vote, and has been the place that has made and broken many candidates. In 2008 and 2012, it was won by Barack Obama, while Mr Trump took it in 2016.
Speaking in West Des Moines, Mr Trump said he was delighted to be back in the state. He said: “It’s great to be back in the heartland of America – we won it by a lot.”
Mr Biden, looking relaxed and tanned, and dressed in a navy blazer, reflected on the importance of the state’s agricultural sector.
“How many farmers across this state have had to face the prospect of losing their business, of losing their farm because of Trump’s tariffs,” he said.
“How many have had to stare at the ceiling at night wondering how they’re going to make it?”
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