DES MOINES, Iowa—In a meandering, occasionally unintelligible speech in front of thousands of people on Thursday evening, President Donald Trump spoke for nearly 90 minutes in hopes of cementing the support of Iowa voters who can’t even caucus for him.
In another speech 80 miles away, also meandering but more intelligible, former Vice President Joe Biden quietly urged an audience of roughly 50 people to caucus for him, saying that he’s “never been more optimistic about America's chances.” That speech lasted 16 minutes.
As Trump put it on Thursday night, “that poor guy is so lost.”
Biden’s event, in a cramped American Legion hall in Ottumwa, was emblematic of Biden’s closing message to Iowa caucus-goers: that his comparatively quiet statesmanship and his steady hand is what’s needed to right the ship of state, no matter how flashy his opponents’ surrogates or airtight their campaign programs.
“I choose rock-solid in my personal life, and I choose rock-solid in my political life,” Chrissie Vilsack, the former first lady of Iowa, said on Thursday morning in Waukee, introducing Biden to deliver what was supposed to be a “pre-buttal” of Trump’s anticipated histrionics later that evening. But the Waukee address—which started so late that some attendees crankily left the venue before the Pledge of Allegiance—felt more like an introduction than a closing argument, delivered in an anesthetic sotto voce.
In the address, Biden defined his candidacy more by what he doesn’t believe, and what he doesn’t want for the United States, than what he actually wants.
“I do not believe we’re the dark, angry nation that Donald Trump sees in his tweets,” Biden said in Waukee. “I don’t believe we’re the nation that rips babies from the arms of their mothers and thinks that’s OK. I don’t believe we’re the nation that builds walls and whips up hysteria about an invasion of immigrants that’s going to do terrible things to us. I do not believe we’re the nation that embraces white supremacists and hatred.”
“Health care, climate, guns, national security, education, student debt, women’s rights—all these issues and more are on the ballot,” Biden said, speaking with more passion than one would express while reading a grocery list but also less passion than one would express under a massive banner emblazoned with the words “SOUL OF THE NATION.”
“But something else is on the ballot, something even more important,” Biden continued. “Character is on the ballot. America’s character.”
There were still flashes of the long-loved Biden charm: the winking, avuncular good guy who’s always just joshing and who responds to anti-Trump call-and-responses from audience members by comically shuffling over, reaching for your hand and teasingly saying “Can I sit with you? I like you a lot.”
But those moments are increasingly rare, to the point that they often make spectators realize how, well, sleepy he seems nowadays.
“People criticize Bernie about his passion when he speaks and he gets a little fired up,” Dustin Mankey of Manly, Iowa, told The Daily Beast before the Newton event. Mankey had seen Biden speak before, but says he intends to caucus for Sanders because he wants a candidate who speaks “passionately.”
“I think that there’s a lot of good in Joe,” Mankey said. “But I want that in a politician, man—I’m tired of just them, you know, just have nothing but charisma and positivity. I mean, there’s stuff going on in our country that should make you angry, and I think it’s important to express that and to see that frustration.”
The Biden onstage in the final days before the Iowa caucuses is more earnest than angry—and while the crisis of faith he describes in his stump speeches is framed as an urgent threat to democracy, the message is delivered with all the urgency of a soda refill at Chili’s. Biden is perpetually nearly an hour late for his own events, and the air in the gymnasium or rec center or union hall already feels like blankets by the time he starts speaking thoroughly, bordering on ramblingly, about the threat Trump poses to the soul of the nation.
In a rare question-and-answer session in Newton, it took Biden more than 17 minutes to answer two questions: one about his relationship with former President Obama, another from a retired science teacher on climate change. The event lasted even longer after former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack took the podium after Biden—as he had in Waukee that morning and in Council Bluffs the night before—which is the stump speech equivalent of Beyoncé hitting the final note in “Love On Top” at Coachella, only to introduce Solange Knowles to perform “Cranes in the Sky.”
Meanwhile, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Biden’s No. 1 rival for victory on caucus night, is preparing a glitzkrieg of high-wattage surrogates, including Vampire Weekend, Bon Iver, and Reps. Pramila Jayapal, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, the latter two of whom announced their arrival in Iowa in an email formatted to look like the world’s most progressive groupchat.
The comparison is even more jarring when Biden turns “it” on. The former vice president does better in a more intimate setting, and with an older audience—but intimate audiences five days before the caucuses don’t win you Iowa, not in a race this tight.
At the Newton event, where there were nearly as many reporters present as potential caucusers, Biden was dexterous, funny, and engaging—wordlessly handing a fistful of lozenges to a woman with a cough, feigning that an unanswered cellphone call is being made by Trump or his lackeys.
“That’s him, probably,” Biden deadpanned in response to one blast from an un-muted phone in Newton. The “him” who’s calling changes, depending on the timing of the interruption—sometimes it’s Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, or President Trump himself.
Cellphones ring constantly during stump speeches—audiences at town halls and meet-and-greets are often on the older side, which often means the volume of their ringtone is particularly loud, and Iowa is extremely cold in January, which means that the offending phones are often buried under layers of down, wool and cotton. Most candidates ignore the interruption, but Biden has his bit, and it kills every time.
The impromptu jokes at the Newton event, which ran so long that even the most creative newspaper photographers started running out of interesting reflective surfaces to photograph, was the closest that the former veep came to reprising Biden Classic.
“He was obviously very folksy, and I know he’s quite famous for that,” said Tom, a self-described political junkie from the United Kingdom who has followed a few candidates around Iowa out of curiosity. “It’s not what I expected, but I was pleased I heard it.”