When Cruz Villarreal texted his friends to encourage them to come with him to see Sen. Elizabeth Warren campaign at Lansing Community College, the 67-year-old received a downtrodden response from a female friend.
“I’m worried the Dems aren’t going to learn their lesson and just give (former Vice President Joe) Biden the nom,” his friend wrote.
He texted back: “I have the same worry.”
When Villarreal was picked to ask Warren a question after she addressed a packed gymnasium here Tuesday night, he posed the one eating away at him: How can she ensure that “the system isn’t going to rob us of what we really want?”
Though Warren did not invoke Biden’s name in her response, it appeared clear which of her presidential competitors the senator likely had in mind when she said: “I don’t want to be the America of 10 years back or 20 years back or 30 years back.” Warren went on to request that Villarreal pass along a message to his concerned friend: “If she’s worried, then put her worry to work – get up off her butt and volunteer!”
Eight months out from the Iowa caucuses, Biden remains the clear front-runner of a historically large Democratic field of nearly two dozen hopefuls. A new CNN poll this week has Sen. Bernie Sanders as the only other candidate with double-digit support among Democratic primary voters. Everyone else – including Sen. Kamala Harris, Warren, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke – trails Biden and Sanders with 8% support or less.
Biden’s unrivaled lead in recent polls is already creating a sense of unease among some potential Democratic voters CNN spoke with in recent days and weeks.
In an interview with CNN after the Warren event in Lansing, Villarreal said the concern that Democrats have already “handed” the nomination to Biden was widely shared among his friends. He said he is personally decided on supporting Warren because what he wants from the next President is “radical change.”
“I don’t think (Biden) believes in a real radical change for America. I think he just wants normalcy,” Villarreal said. “I think more people want a better America, not the same America that didn’t work for me, didn’t work for a lot of people like me. It’s just working for very wealthy people.”
At campaign events of some of Biden’s rivals, numerous attendees have told CNN that they might ultimately back Biden over another candidate they find more appealing because they believe he is singularly best positioned to defeat President Donald Trump next November. Women in particular have been especially blunt about what they see as the role of sexism in the 2020 race, saying they worry that Biden’s consistent lead in the polls may be, at least in part, because the country is not ready to elect a woman President.
At a Warren event in Detroit earlier on Tuesday, some Democrats told CNN they believe Biden’s greatest appeal is his perceived strength against Trump.
Crettia Hunter, a 61-year-old black woman from Detroit, said Warren is her top pick for now, and that she is also impressed by Harris and Sen. Cory Booker. Currently ranked second on her list is Biden, Hunter said, “mainly because I know he can win.”
“But I don’t want the same middle of the road policies,” Hunter added.
Ashley Weigl, 37, who attended that same event with her 7-year-old daughter, told CNN that she is set on Warren because she likes the senator’s message on economic and racial inequality. Asked about Biden’s continued dominance in the polls, Weigl said she wasn’t surprised.
“I think a lot of pretty moderate Democrats feel very comfortable with him. He doesn’t challenge the status quo too much,” she said. “He’s what this country has historically been accustomed to in terms of who we elect to our highest positions of power. He’s a white man.”
Oliver Hackett, a 22-year-old college student from the suburbs of Detroit, said that his top choices are Warren, Buttigieg and Harris, and that he hopes Biden’s lead in the polls will turn out to be temporary.
“He at some point will fall off,” Hackett said. “Right now, people are comfortable with the thought of Joe Biden.”
The coming months will show precisely whether Biden can maintain his lead heading into next year, or if the field will begin to even out. The first Democratic primary debates are in June and July.
And there’s little doubt that the remains fluid: In this week’s CNN poll, 44% of potential Democratic primary voters said they have made up their minds on which candidate to support, while 55% said they could still change their minds.
This comes as some of Biden’s rivals are taking him on by drawing policy contrasts on issues like climate change and trade - a preview of the kinds of clashes that could intensify as the Democratic debates kick off later this month.
Biden, for his part, is shrugging off the criticism that has come his way.
During a campaign stop in New Hampshire on Tuesday, Biden said: “I’m not talking about going back to the past. I’m talking about avoiding a terrible future if we do not figure out how to make this work.”
Of his Democratic rivals, Biden added: “They’re good folks, but you know, as I said – see you around.”
CNN’s Caroline Kenny and Carolyn Sung contributed to this report.