Joe Biden Still Wants to Win Iowa. Here’s His Strategy.

STORM LAKE, Iowa — The teleprompters are gone. The gatherings are often intimate. There are fewer rope lines separating the candidate from the voters. And the message includes earnest efforts to relate to rural life.

“You have the same problem out here with, with cattle and hogs that we have back in Delaware with chickens: a whole hell of a lot of manure,” Joseph R. Biden Jr. said to titters, as he discussed the rural economy during a Sunday afternoon campaign stop.

This is how Mr. Biden is seeking to regain his footing here in Iowa, the leadoff caucus state where he has struggled to generate enthusiasm and faltered in the polls this fall. Through a bus trip his campaign is calling the “No Malarkey” tour — a favorite Bidenism — he is racing to connect with voters who live in the more rural counties where his campaign believes he needs to overperform on Feb. 3.

The hope is that by personally connecting with small-town Democrats and independents, Mr. Biden can arrest his slide and generate some momentum in a state that has historically been difficult for him.

“I know you kind of doubted a little bit, but I’m running to win,” Mr. Biden told reporters over coffee Sunday morning. “I’m not running to lose. I’m not running to come in third or fourth or fifth or anything like that.”

Mr. Biden knows from disappointing finishes here. In his 1988 presidential campaign, amid a plagiarism controversy that originated at an Iowa debate, he dropped out before the caucuses. In 2008, he came in fifth. Now, as a former vice president, he enjoys widespread name recognition, respect for his foreign policy experience and the perception, polls show, that he can mount a strong challenge to President Trump.

Yet several recent Iowa surveys have shown him as low as fourth place at this fluid stage of the race. Even in polls in which he fares better, Mr. Biden’s numbers have dropped sharply here despite his still-resilient national lead. And party leaders in the state have long said that he has been less visible here compared to candidates like Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind.

This week, Mr. Biden is working to change that as he embarks on his most intense stretch of campaigning in Iowa so far. In the early days of the bus tour he drew modest but often enthusiastic crowds in more rural areas, generally in deeply Republican counties. On Monday and Tuesday his Iowa events were broken up by fund-raisers in Chicago and New York, but he is then expected to maintain a busier schedule on the ground through Saturday.

Mr. Biden can be a choppy, long-winded orator, but he is at his strongest in individual conversations with voters. On this trip, Mr. Biden is prioritizing that tactic — recording birthday videos for voters’ relatives, providing ice cream money to a 10-year-old, bonding with those who have confronted cancer, like his son Beau did.

His stump speeches can still be long and meandering. But instead of taking questions in front of the crowd, as he has in other town hall-style settings, Mr. Biden is inviting voters to come up after his events and talk to him personally.

“I know it drives, you know, staff crazy, because I spend time with folks, I have trouble walking away from them,” Mr. Biden said of his approach, speaking in Emmetsburg on Monday morning. “I just find it to be the most significant thing you can do. And this bus tour allows that, that’s one of the things I like about it.”

At Mr. Biden’s early events on the tour, it was often former Gov. Tom Vilsack, an Iowa Democrat and coveted endorser, who delivered the closing address — speaking after the candidate. Mr. Vilsack, a measured Midwesterner, argued that the former vice president pursues goals that are both “progressive” and “realistic,” and cast him as an empathetic leader who can win in crucial general election battlegrounds.

The Biden-Vilsack combination was powerful to some voters.

“As he spoke I just felt that presidential moment I needed to hear,” said Melanie Langner, 46, of Storm Lake. “Tom Vilsack put me over the edge. Being empathetic is one of the most missed qualities in the country. I heard it. It emanates from him.”

Mr. Vilsack suggested to reporters that the voters Mr. Biden is engaging on this trip aren’t necessarily the “rah-rah” Democrats visible at party events that draw committed activists.

“They’re just going to quietly listen,” he said. “They’re going to go back to their home. They’re going to go back to their church circle. They’re going to go to their coffee club. They’re going to go to their book club. And they’re going to start talking about this, and all of a sudden, on Feb. 3, people are going to show up. And you don’t even know who they are.”

But the crowd at Mr. Biden’s kickoff event in Council Bluffs was far smaller than the ones at events held there by some of his rivals, including Senator Bernie Sanders and Mr. Buttigieg. And some of the people who came to see Mr. Biden, 77, were also vocal about their interest in Mr. Buttigieg, 37, whose rise here has cut into Mr. Biden’s centrist base and also siphoned support from white, college-educated voters who might otherwise back candidates like Ms. Warren.

“I’m not convinced Biden did a very good job in debates, so I have some reservations about that, maybe a little with age,” said Jeanne Tinsley, 74, a retired professor who attended a Biden event here in Storm Lake. “Buttigieg handles himself very, very nicely speaking in front of people.”

John Boes of Carroll, Iowa, was having breakfast when Mr. Biden’s bus — emblazoned with the “No Malarkey” slogan — pulled up in front of a coffee house. Mr. Biden, he said, would be among his top three choices. But then he brought up Mr. Buttigieg.

“I’m trying to think of that young guy’s name,” he said, adding that he liked the mayor, “very much so.”

Asked about Mr. Buttigieg on Sunday, Mr. Biden was reluctant to engage directly, drawing only an oblique contrast over experience — perhaps under the assumption that Mr. Buttigieg, who struggles with voters of color, poses less of a threat to Mr. Biden in the diverse states that follow Iowa.

By Monday, Mr. Biden was more sharply dismissive of Mr. Buttigieg’s standing with moderates and of his approach to health care, suggesting that the mayor had copied his proposal to build on the Affordable Care Act.

On the stump, Mr. Biden avoided overt criticisms of rivals, focusing heavily on small-town values — which stand in contrast, he suggested, to Mr. Trump’s divisive style — and on his plan to create more economic opportunities in struggling rural areas.

Mr. Biden also said repeatedly that he wanted to speak from the heart. Sometimes that led to slip-ups as he abandoned his notes and paced the rooms. On Sunday night, Mr. Biden remarked, “As Tom said, the next president of the United States is not going to have any chance for on-the-job training.” But Mr. Vilsack had not yet spoken.

The crowd didn’t seem to mind, later rewarding Mr. Biden with sustained applause.

On Sunday morning, Mr. Biden was asked why his strength in the national polls wasn’t reflected in Iowa surveys.

“We’re here to translate,” he said.

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