Joe Biden Decides He Doesn’t Need to Stay Above the Fray After All

ATKINSON, N.H. — Joseph R. Biden Jr. spent the first months of his presidential campaign largely ignoring his nearly two dozen rivals, seeking to stay above the Democratic fray as he cast himself as an unapologetic pragmatist who could beat President Trump in a general election.

But after a rocky first debate performance, blistering criticism from his opponents and the tightening of some polls, Mr. Biden made clear on a two-day swing through New Hampshire this weekend that he is now ready to engage directly with his fellow Democrats.

The settings on Mr. Biden’s trip were idyllic: a speech on the banks of a river in Dover, a news conference outside of a Portsmouth ice cream shop, a house party in a lush backyard here in Atkinson.

But the words suggested that the former vice president is entering a new and more confrontational phase of his 2020 campaign.

Mr. Biden’s fresh efforts to highlight distinctions with his rivals — over issues that ranged this weekend from health care and foreign policy, to electability and executive orders — come as he seeks to move on from weeks of scrutiny of his decades-long record, and to offer a more substantive and forward-looking vision beyond his early focus on defeating the president.

He drew some of the starkest distinctions to date between himself and other top-polling candidates on the issue of health care. Those comments earned a rare direct rebuke from Senator Bernie Sanders, who, like several other leading candidates aside from Mr. Biden, supports Medicare for All, a sweeping single-payer proposal that would all but eliminate private health insurance. In an interview, Mr. Sanders bristled at Mr. Biden’s remarks, and said some of his characterizations of Medicare for All were “totally absurd.”

“I admire the rest of the field, from Bernie to Elizabeth to Kamala who want, you know, Medicare for All, but let me tell you, I think one of the most significant things we’ve done in our administration is pass the Affordable Care Act,” Mr. Biden said to applause here Saturday morning, referencing the signature health care measure passed under the Obama administration.

He said that he wanted to strengthen the Affordable Care Act and to add a public option, something he acknowledged could come with a significant price tag.

“But it doesn’t cost $3 trillion, and it can be done quickly,” he continued, when asked about differences among the Democratic candidates. “I don’t know why we’d get rid of what in fact is working and move to something totally new. And so, there are differences.”

A day earlier, as he navigated a dripping ice cream cone while speaking to reporters in Portsmouth, Mr. Biden echoed President Barack Obama as he said that his vision would “allow people who in fact like their private insurance, or like their employer-based insurance, to be able to keep it.” And he also mentioned one of his opponents by name.

“Bernie’s been very honest about it,” he said, of Medicare for All. “He’s said you’re going to have to raise taxes on the middle class. He says it’s going to end all private insurance. I mean, he’s been straightforward about it and he’s making his case.”

Asked if other contenders have been equally direct about Medicare for All’s costs, he replied, “So far, not. So far, not. They may. They may.”

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In an interview, Mr. Sanders, who introduced the Medicare for All Act in the Senate and sometimes comes in second to Mr. Biden in early polls, bristled at Mr. Biden’s remarks, as he stressed that he, too, had been committed to passing and protecting the Affordable Care Act, even as he now advocates for something more far-reaching.

He also took issue with what he perceived as Mr. Biden’s suggestion that the transition to Medicare for All could leave people with gaps in medical care, calling such an implication “totally absurd.”

“Obviously what Biden was doing,” Mr. Sanders said, “is what the insurance companies and the pharmaceutical industries, Republicans, do: ignoring the fact that people will save money on their health care because they will no longer have to pay premiums or out-of-pocket expenses. They will no longer have high deductibles and high co-payments.”

Asked whether it was fair to put Mr. Biden in the same category as the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, given his role in advancing the Affordable Care Act in the first place, Mr. Sanders replied: “The charge that he’s making is exactly what the Republicans are saying.”

Mr. Biden’s campaign didn’t respond when asked for comment on those remarks. Mr. Sanders’s campaign said he will “confront the Democratic opponents of Medicare for All” in a speech on Wednesday in Washington, a sign that tensions between the two candidates could escalate this week.

Mr. Biden, 76, who spoke to reporters for 20 minutes Friday afternoon in Portsmouth — ignoring his aide’s urging of “last question” — seemed jauntier and less defensive in New Hampshire than he had in the past few weeks, which were dominated by questions about his opposition to many busing initiatives dating to the 1970s, and by outcry over his warm recollections last month about working relationships with segregationists in the Senate, both of which had become issues in the last presidential debate.

Last Saturday, Mr. Biden, who is generally reluctant to apologize for elements of his lengthy record, expressed regret for those comments.

By the time he reached New Hampshire, however, Mr. Biden was no longer on anything resembling an apology tour.

“One of the things we have to do — and I know I’m getting skewered by a lot of the, quote, new Democratic Party, and I respect them by the way — is that somehow, somehow, the idea that being able to cooperate with the other side is considered to be naïve,” Mr. Biden said Friday afternoon.

Asked about that view, Mr. Sanders, 77, who like many lawmakers has also at times worked across the aisle, said, “Maybe Joe is thinking about what existed in Congress 30 years ago, I don’t know. And there was a time when you had, moderate Republicans were prepared to support good legislation. Sadly, especially under Trump, those days are over.”

Certainly, Mr. Biden also issued plenty of calls for Democratic Party unity, and largely stuck to highlighting policy differences in broad strokes, rather than more sharply questioning the experience or judgment of any individual opponent. But even as Mr. Biden said he would “break my neck” helping to elect the eventual nominee and warned against a “circular firing squad,” his willingness to highlight intraparty differences was undeniably a break in emphasis from his early pledges to never “speak ill of another Democratic candidate for president.”

“We’re criticizing Trump, with good reason, for abusing executive power,” he said unprompted before a gathering of young Democrats in Portsmouth, as a thunderstorm threatened on Friday evening. “How many times you hear candidates on the stage, of the 400 of us running, how many you hear saying, ‘If I’m elected, I will by executive order do the following.’ What are we talking about? There’s a Constitution! It separates power. It’s important.”

Mr. Biden also more subtly sought to draw contrasts on the question of electability, claiming in Dover, “I think I’m the only one of the candidates or anyone else who was invited in to campaign in 24 states,” naming “red states” like Alabama — where Senator Cory Booker had also appeared for a Senate race — and Montana and North Dakota, “blue states as well as purple states that we should never lose, like Pennsylvania, Michigan and so on.”

But as much as Mr. Biden insisted he was ready to focus on the future, plenty of voters — not to mention his opponents — are not done talking about his past.

On Saturday morning, Mr. Biden was asked about his previous support for the war in Iraq. The “mistake I made was trusting President Bush” on the question of sending inspectors into that country, he said.

He was also asked whether he would consider appointing Anita Hill, now a professor at Brandeis, to the Supreme Court. Professor Hill testified during the nomination hearings for Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991, when Mr. Biden was the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and critics at the time and more so today say he mishandled the situation.

Mr. Biden said that he has had “long conversations with Anita Hill,” and also said that she has indicated that she could vote for Mr. Biden. “Didn’t say she will, but she said yes. And so it’s a little blown out of proportion.” He added that “it’s important that the courts look like the country,” including people of color and women.

Mr. Biden also signaled that he expects more scrutiny to come.

“There’s a lot of people doing opposition research out there that seem very interested in my 40-year record, and I’m proud of my record,” he said. “Did I make mistakes? Sure I made mistakes. But the fact of the matter is, you have to know context.”

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