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A Look At Biden's Campaign Strategy Four Months Ahead Of November's Election

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Like so much of American life in the past few years, the presidential election can seem to be about just one person - Donald Trump. There is another candidate, though. Joe Biden rarely dominates the news cycle the way that the president can, but polls show he is beating Trump in almost every key battleground state. So what exactly is his strategy? Here's NPR's Asma Khalid.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Biden held one in-person event this week - in his hometown of Wilmington, Del.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE BIDEN: I have to start by speaking about what millions Americans know when they wake up every morning with worry, anxiety and fear. We're still a country in crisis.

KHALID: This is typical Joe Biden, trying to stay focused on the pandemic, not be goaded into outrage over inflammatory tweets. Occasionally, he rolls out a new plan. Some would say he's playing it safe. His senior adviser, Anita Dunn, puts it this way.

ANITA DUNN: What we are doing right now is showing people what kind of president Joe Biden would be.

KHALID: The Biden campaign admits that one of its most effective weapons against Trump is Trump himself, what he says and how he acts. But Dunn says they're also trying to lay out the clear difference between these two men.

DUNN: Our best counterprogramming to Donald Trump is to contrast Joe Biden's leadership, his visions for the future, his steadiness, his experience to deal with crises with what people are getting from their president right now.

KHALID: Democratic strategist Paul Begala says the coronavirus pandemic makes the contrast feel sharper than it did in 2016.

PAUL BEGALA: When he was just a candidate, people judged Trump the way they judged him when he was just a reality TV show. Oh, look. He's picked a Twitter war with Rosie O'Donnell. When you're president and people are dying, picking a Twitter war with Bubba Wallace the NASCAR driver doesn't save my mom's life.

KHALID: Begala points out that in the last century, voters have fired only three elected presidents. And one thing that happened to the incumbent in all of those cases is that people just stopped listening to the president. They gave up on him.

ARI FLEISCHER: And I think that Biden's strategy is to let Trump fail.

KHALID: That's Ari Fleischer. He was press secretary under George W. Bush.

FLEISCHER: Make Biden as small as possible. Don't make him an issue. Don't put him in a position to say, you ain't black to anybody else ever again or make any other foibles like that. And let Donald Trump take all the heat.

KHALID: He was referring to a controversial comment that Biden made on "The Breakfast Club." Fleischer admits part of what makes this all hard for Trump is that he has a shadow opponent. Biden is nowhere near as visible as the president. In the last month, he held three public virtual events, seven in-person events, all in Delaware or Pennsylvania, and he did a total of six TV interviews. Fleischer says Trump just doesn't know how to handle this low-key Biden. For starters, he thinks the nickname Sleepy Joe is off.

FLEISCHER: With three and a half years of President Trump being as red-hot as he is and with the COVID scare underway, sleepy also connotes calm, which very well may be the antidote for many voters to the Trump era.

KHALID: Fleischer suggests Trump should try to paint Biden as weak. Biden himself may be focused on a less-is-more strategy. But operationally, Democrats say they're much better positioned than they were four years ago. Lavora Barnes is the chair of the Michigan Democratic Party.

LAVORA BARNES: If you were to have parachuted in at this point in 2016, I think you would have found that there were probably about 20 people on the ground. The difference here is that we have about 160 people on the ground.

KHALID: On the ground is figurative. Nobody from the Biden campaign is knocking on doors, even though Trump campaign volunteers are. Democrats say that's foolish, given the rising number COVID cases. But for now, that's not their fight. As Paul Begala told me, if your opponent is destroying himself, don't interrupt.

Asma Khalid, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF HANDBOOK'S "STARRY SKIES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.