01:42 - Source: CNN
CNN poll: Joe Biden leading Democratic pack
Cedar Rapids, Iowa CNN —  

Former Vice President Joe Biden returns to Iowa this week, where his status as the front-runner for the 2020 Democratic nomination will be tested as he navigates rising criticism from his rivals and a series of self-inflicted wounds that have raised questions about his strength as a candidate.

Since entering the race in April, Biden has consistently topped national polls and has campaigned as a front-runner – keeping his focus on President Donald Trump while maintaining a noticeably lighter travel schedule than most of his opponents. Aside from early interviews with ABC News and The View, Biden has also largely avoided national media appearances.

But some warning signs for Biden have emerged in recent days. After Biden’s campaign last week reiterated his long-held support for a ban on federal funds being used for abortion, the rest of the Democratic presidential field roundly criticized him. Biden then quickly reversed his position, attributing the evolution to growing Republican attacks on abortion rights.

The former vice president’s campaign also added citations to his plan to combat climate change after facing criticism for lifting some of its language from liberal groups.

And a new Iowa Poll from CNN and the Des Moines Register showed he still tops the Democratic field, but with a smaller margin than in most national surveys. The poll also showed an enthusiasm gap for supporters of Biden and those of his top competitors.

The burden is now on Biden, who returns to Iowa to campaign on Tuesday and Wednesday, to show that he can hold onto his front-runner position. Veteran Democratic officials and operatives in Iowa say Biden is still playing catch-up to several rival campaigns in establishing an organization in the state.

Biden will be competing Tuesday in Iowa for headlines with Trump, who will visit the state to tout his administration’s lifting the restrictions on higher ethanol blends and for a fundraiser for the state GOP.

In a speech on trade Tuesday, Biden will attack on Trump’s trade policies, saying he hopes the President’s presence in Iowa will be a “clarifying event.”

“America’s farmers have been crushed by his tariff war with China,” Biden will say according to his prepared remarks. “No one knows that better than Iowa.”

Challenges for Biden

Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who worked closely with Biden while serving as agriculture secretary for all eight years of the Obama administration, said the former vice president is aware of the challenges facing his candidacy and the need to prove himself.

“The challenge for him and for any candidate is to tap into this passion that exists among Democrats,” Vilsack said. “He’s aware of that. He also has the challenge of making sure the policies and ideas he has are his own and are fresh, new and bold.”

The chief argument of Biden’s campaign – his claim that he’s the strongest candidate to defeat Trump – will be tested by Iowa voters in the eight months leading up to the caucuses. His advisers know that a poor showing in the state would all but doom his candidacy.

To make his electability argument, Biden has been focusing far more on Trump than on his Democratic rivals. He chose Ottumwa as his first stop on Tuesday, which is the largest city in Wapello County, one of 32 that Trump flipped from blue to red in the 2016 election. Iowa had more counties turn from blue to red than any other state in the country.

The most frenetic weekend of campaigning in Iowa yet saw 19 candidates visit the state for the Hall of Fame dinner, a gathering of hundreds of Democratic activists and loyalists featuring a circus-like atmosphere on the streets of Cedar Rapids outside the event. Biden was noticeably absent, as he was a week prior with another larger 2020 event in California.

While he was attending his granddaughter’s high school graduation, which voters and party activists said was understandable, several wondered aloud why his campaign didn’t so much as hang a banner to show he is not taking the state for granted.

On Monday, at an event in Washington, Biden responded to criticism of his absence from the events in Iowa this past weekend by defending his choice to stay home.

“One of my competitors criticized me for not going to Iowa to talk for five minutes. … My granddaughter was graduating,” Biden said. “It was my daughter’s birthday. I would skip inauguration for that.”

And Biden’s rivals used the event – just as did they at the California Democratic Party’s convention, which Biden also skipped – to test lines of attack against the former vice president.

Buttigieg told attendees at the Iowa Hall of Fame dinner that Democrats will not win in 2020 by “promising a return to normal.” Sanders offered another implicit criticism of Biden, warning against “a middle ground strategy that antagonizes no one, that stands out to nobody and that changes nothing.”

Joellen Megan was on hand for Biden’s first Iowa visit last month to Iowa City. She said he remains among her top candidates – largely because she believes in his electability argument – but added that she is far from ready to commit to his campaign.

“I want to be open-minded to the younger people who are running, too. They have a lot to offer,” Megan said in a weekend interview, as she watched Democratic candidates at the Hall of Fame Dinner. “Joe has a lot to offer with his experience, too, but young people have experience that also is valid.”

Rising stakes

Biden’s approach of keeping a limited public campaign schedule and focusing his attacks on Trump, rather than engaging with other Democratic candidates, comes with at least one advantage that will be tough for other candidates to match: More time to raise money. He has embraced the high-dollar donor events that his foes eschewed and is likely to reveal a hefty fundraising haul when 2019’s second quarter closes at the end of June.

The stakes will rise later this month, when the Democratic field meets in Miami for its first debate. With a national audience tuned in, Biden can deliver a performance that begins to put questions about his politics and approach to the campaign to rest – or that guarantees they will hang over his candidacy for what could be a rough summer.

But there are already signs Democrats are paying close attention to Biden’s stumbles.

At events across the state over the weekend, Democrats were attuned to Biden’s reversal on an abortion issue days earlier. His campaign said Wednesday he supported the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funds from being used to pay for abortions; after a day and a half of criticism from his opponents and from women’s rights groups, Biden changed course Thursday night and said he would repeal the Hyde Amendment.

“He wanted to keep it in place. That’s really what he believes,” Shana Spier, a 40-year-old claims adjuster in Sioux City, said Saturday while watching a series of Democratic candidates speak at the Des Moines pride festival’s candidate forum. “He just backed down when it was brought up to him.”

Others said they were miffed Biden hasn’t kept a busier campaign schedule as other candidates hold as many as six events per day.

“It bothers me that Biden is taking a vacation,” Jim Ferguson, a retired educator, said while attending a Buttigieg campaign stop on Saturday.

Other Democratic candidates largely declined to criticize Biden’s scheduling priorities, but said they’ve benefited from spending time in the early-voting states.

“This is the only way I know to learn what’s most important to the people of Iowa, is to show up and listen to them. And not just the questions that you heard asked publicly, but in-line folks to say, ‘Hey, you know, on, on your answer about this, have you thought about taking this additional step or a moment to add something to the question that I asked you?’” former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke told reporters Friday. “And, and we’re writing down everything everyone tells us. And then incorporating that, as long as I agree with it, into the plans that we’re proposing for the country.”

Warren is widely seen as having the strongest Iowa presence, with staffers already holding organizing events without the candidate. California Sen. Kamala Harris and O’Rourke recently announced major expansions of their Iowa operations. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker used the Hall of Fame dinner as a show of force for his organizing push.

“I think these next few months are pretty critical for Biden in Iowa,” said J.D. Schouten, one of the most sought-after Democratic leaders in Iowa. “He’s a leader, but it’s anyone’s game at this point. If he comes out here and does put in the work, he’ll definitely have success.”

CNN’s Daniella Diaz and Dan Merica contributed to this report.