WASHINGTON - According to the polls, former Vice President Joe Biden continues to hold a lead over the large pack of Democratic presidential contenders for next year's election.
Despite his standing in the polls, concerns linger about Biden's age and his habit of making verbal gaffes, and that has some Democrats questioning whether he is the best candidate to go up against President Donald Trump next year.
Like most of his rivals, Biden has focused his campaign efforts in the early voting state of Iowa in recent weeks. Iowa will kick off the primary voting process with its caucus votes Feb. 3.
In speaking to Democratic voters, Biden often makes the desire to defeat President Trump his primary campaign focus.
"If we give him eight years, and I really believe this from the bottom of my heart, he will forever change the character and the nature of who we are," Biden told a rally in Boone, Iowa, last week. "That is why we have to defeat Donald Trump in 2020. Period."
Biden remains atop national and key state polls for now but faces strong competition from a large field of rivals that includes Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.
"2020 is our chance. We can make this government work for all of America. Let's do this, Democrats! Dream big! Fight hard! Let's win!" Warren urged Iowa voters last week.
Warren has been surging in the polls in recent weeks and has moved into a slight lead for second place behind Biden in an average of national polls, according to the nonpartisan political website, RealClear Politics.
Atop the polls
The RealClear average of polls shows Biden atop the field with 30%, followed by Warren at 18%, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders at 17%, California Senator Kamala Harris with 8% and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg with 6%. The rest of the Democratic field is at less than 3%.
Biden also retains smaller leads over the Democratic field in the key early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire. Biden leads in Iowa by an average of 9 points, but in New Hampshire, his edge has come down to less than 3 points over Sanders and Warren.
Even at age 76, Biden remains an energetic campaigner. But he has also drawn scrutiny in recent weeks for a series of verbal gaffes that have sent shudders of nervousness through some Democratic voters.
Biden got confused about the locations of the recent mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, at one point referring to shootings in Houston and Michigan.
He told a crowd in Iowa that he had met as vice president with students from Parkland, Florida, after the mass shooting there in February 2018, even though he had left office in early 2017.
And Biden seemed to inject an element of race into comments he made about education and the poor during a campaign speech in Iowa.
"Poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids, wealthy kids, black kids, Asian kids," he said.
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On Trump's radar
Among those taking note of both Biden's lead in the polls and his recent gaffes is the man he would like to beat in next year's election, President Trump.
"Joe is not playing with a full deck," Trump told reporters outside the White House last Friday. "This is not somebody you can have as your president. But if he got the nomination, I'd be thrilled."
Democrats may also be anxious over Biden's past campaign failures. He dropped out early of the 1988 and 2008 presidential campaigns and never came close to being the frontrunner as he is now.
Biden has vowed to push on despite the criticism.
"So look, this is a marathon. You are going to see these numbers go up and down and up and down," he told voters as a forum on guns in Iowa last week. "So all I can do is just continue to do what I have done during my career and this time I have more of a platform on which to do it, and that is try to be as authentic as I can and let people know who I am, and they are going to make a choice."
Biden took some hits in the first two debates from some of his rivals. But Vanderbilt University political scientist Vanessa Beasley said the former vice president has also demonstrated some resiliency.
"There is still some good evidence that people in the Democratic Party think that he is the person with the best chance of beating Trump. I think there is a lot of forgiveness in that crowd right now because they want him to maintain that status of the most name recognition and the highest chance of beating Trump," Beasley said.
But with months to go until the first votes are cast in the Democratic primary and several more rounds of debate ahead, there is still plenty of time for Biden's rivals to gain ground.
"I think if Biden is still leading as we get into September and October after a few (more) debates, that will prove that he is a more durable frontrunner," University of Virginia analyst Kyle Kondik told VOA. "But it is also possible that under this heightened amount of scrutiny that some of his support may go to some of these other candidates and then maybe it will really turn into a truly wide open race."
Public opinion surveys in recent months have shown Biden doing well in head-to-head matchups with Trump next year, though several of his rivals also posted narrow leads.
Biden continues to emphasize the argument that he would be the strongest nominee to take on Trump, while key rivals Warren and Sanders emphasize a broader agenda of reform on the economy and social issues.
This split within the Democratic Party over whether to focus primarily on Trump or push for broader political change remains vibrant, said Brookings Institution analyst Darrell West.
"A lot of the current debate among the Democrats is, do we need small changes and basically bring America back to what it was like before Trump, or do we need much more substantial changes?" he said.
That dilemma will be on display again when Democrats gather for a third debate in Houston next month.