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Column: Biden bets he'll find voters closer to the center

Joe Biden took his sputtering campaign onto the offensive this week, unveiling an unashamedly moderate healthcare plan and slamming his rivals’ “Medicare for all” bill as “too risky.”

It was about time.

The new, more assertive tone should help the former vice president’s campaign regain its footing — and could be good for his party too.

When Biden entered the Democratic presidential race, he said he planned to avoid criticizing other candidates and would pitch himself as someone who could unify most of the nation against President Trump.

His honeymoon didn’t last. Biden’s progressive rivals didn’t hesitate to draw sharp contrasts with the front-runner.

“The time for small ideas is over,” Elizabeth Warren said.

Biden added a self-inflicted wound or two: an ill-chosen reminiscence about working with Southern segregationists in the Senate and a Pollyannaish promise that Republicans in Congress would be easy to deal with if Trump were defeated.

Then came Kamala Harris’ brutally efficient debate takedown over Biden’s long-ago opposition to mandatory busing in school desegregation.

The former vice president struggled to respond. He looked “confused,” as former Barack Obama aide David Axelrod put it. Democrats began worrying about a question they had been trying to avoid: At 76, is Biden too old to be the nominee?

He’s still the front-runner, but his standing in the polls has sagged. In the Real Clear Politics average of national polls, Biden has the support of about 28% of Democrats this week, down from a high of 41% in May.

Something had to change, Biden and his aides knew — beginning with the age issue.

“All I can say is watch me,” he told reporters. He challenged Trump, who is 71, to a push-up contest.

He did a round of public appearances, a long interview with CNN, and impromptu sessions with reporters. He even stopped reminiscing in public about the good old days of bipartisanship in the 1970s.

But going on offense — picking some fights with his rivals — should help even more, by shifting the focus of the campaign from his baggage-laden past to his party’s future.

Democrats are divided on several major policy issues, although you might not know it from last month’s debate.

For example, polls have found that most Democrats support the basic idea of Medicare for all, a government-run single-payer health plan, but even many of those who support it still want private insurance to be available. (Bernie Sanders’ version would eliminate almost all private insurance. Biden’s proposal would keep private insurance and enlarge Obamacare.)

On another issue that came up in the debates, about two-thirds of Democrats believe immigrants in the country illegally should be given access to government-run healthcare. But about one-third do not — and large majorities of Republicans and independents oppose the idea.

Most Democrats aren’t Sanders or Warren Democrats; that’s why those two far-left candidates are in second and third place. A YouGov/HuffPost poll last year found that about one-third of Democrats want the party to be “more liberal.” About half want it to be less liberal or stay the same.

The first debate produced what looked like a stampede to the left, with most candidates endorsing Sanders’ version of Medicare for all and health insurance for illegal immigrants.

Now Biden has volunteered to represent the party’s other, larger pole.

“The vast number of Democrats are where I am on the issues,” he said. “It’s center-left. That’s where I am. Where it’s not is way left.”

“That’s what this debate is about,” he added.

The argument isn’t only about policy. It’s also about the central question on most Democratic voters’ minds: Which candidate is most likely to defeat Trump?

“If a candidate can prove that they can beat Trump, that’s more important than whether they’re more conservative or more liberal,” argued Tad Devine, who was a Sanders advisor in 2016.

He suggested that Biden should argue more explicitly that his policies will make him more likely to succeed in the general election.

“He should be saying: ‘I’m in this to beat Trump, and this is the way to do it.’ That’s the larger theme.”

The next debates on July 30 and 31 will pose a crucial test for Biden. Reporters and voters will be watching to see whether he falters again.

One of the television panelists will almost certainly ask the age question: Are you too old for the job?

Since he knows it’s coming, that one should be easy. All Biden needs to do is come up with his own version of Ronald Reagan’s famous 1984 answer: “I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s age and inexperience.”

Reagan was 73 when reelected that year, the oldest person ever elected president. His opponent, Walter Mondale, was 56.

But Biden also needs to worry about a stage full of rivals who all saw Harris soar in the polls last month. One of them is likely to try again.

When the race began, Biden sounded as if he thought his long history as a center-left Democrat would be enough to prove his fitness for the nomination.

“They know me,” he has said of the voters.

But that’s not enough. He still has to prove that he’s the one for the job.

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