BURLINGTON, Iowa (AP) — Joe Biden's campaign is not anchored in a big policy idea like Bernie Sanders' Medicare for All. He is not proposing transformative change like Elizabeth Warren. Instead, Biden's call to voters is a more visceral one, casting the 2020 race as a test of the country's character.
The recent back-to-back mass killings in Texas and Ohio have, for now, allowed Biden to re-center his campaign on those ideas. After spending the past three months largely on defense over a long policy record that draws fire from Democratic Party's most progressive corners, Biden reasserted himself this week with a blistering takedown of President Donald Trump's racist language and the ways in which some of the president's anti-immigrant outbursts could have inspired one of the shootings.
"I will not let this man be re-elected president of the United States of America," Biden said this week in Iowa, where he weaved between hushed disappointment and incredulous fury over a president who offers "no moral leadership."
Biden has hardly been alone among Democratic presidential candidates in assailing Trump after the latest killings. The accused shooter in El Paso has been linked to a racist screed that echoed many of the president's own tirades about an immigrant "invasion," prompting at least two of Biden's rivals to brand Trump a "white supremacist."
Yet only Biden has made questions of character — that of Trump and the nation — the centerpiece of his White House bid. He says it was Trump's equivocating response to the 2017 racial clash in Charlottesville, Virginia, that prompted him to run and he has repeatedly declared the election a battle "for the soul of the nation."
It's a more comfortable platform for Biden, an elder statesman in the party who consistently polls high on personal attributes, than running as an ideologue or agent of change. The 76-year-old would be the oldest new president in history — 78 upon inauguration. And his positions on a range of issues, including abortion access and criminal justice, have evolved along with his party over the past four decades, subjecting him to bruising criticism from progressives.
Members of the Biden family
Members of the Biden family
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (C) takes the oath of office from Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor as his wife Jill Biden holds the family bible and family members look on at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington January 20, 2013. Shown are R. Hunter Biden (front row), Maisy Biden (black cardigan), Noami Biden (red shirt), Finnegan Biden (maroon and black dress), Natalie Biden (front row, purple dress), Kathleen Biden, Hunter Biden, Ashley Biden, Howard Krein, Beau Biden and Hallie Biden.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden joined by his family members walk along the national road named after his late son Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III, in the village of Sojevo, Kosovo, August 17, 2016. President Joe Biden is the guest of honor during the street dedication ceremony naming the national road Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (R) talks with his son, U.S. Army Capt Beau Biden, at Camp Victory on the outskirts of Baghdad July 4, 2009. Biden met U.S. troops preparing to mark their Independence Day holiday on Saturday, on the third day of a visit he has used to urge Iraqi politicians to do more to reconcile rival factions.
U.S. President Barack Obama (L-R), Vice President Joe Biden and Biden's son Hunter Biden attend an NCAA basketball game between Georgetown University and Duke University in Washington, January 30, 2010.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (L) is joined by his wife Jill Biden (4th L) and their family for remarks at a volunteer project to assemble care kits for U.S. military service members and veterans at a Unite America in Service event at the National Guard Armory in Washington, January 19, 2013. Biden and his family volunteered for the event during the National Day of Service as part of the 57th Presidential Inauguration.
Democratic vice-presidential candidate Joe Biden (D-DE) watches his grandson Hunter wave at the crowd after Biden spoke at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado August 27, 2008.
(REUTERS/ Rick Wilking)
Dr. Jill Biden (C), wife of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, waves onstage with Biden family members at the Kids Inaugural concert for children and military families, one of the events ahead of the second-term inauguration of U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington January 19, 2013.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden walks with his sons Beau (L) and Hunter (2nd R) and his wife Jill down Pennsylvania Avenue during the inaugural parade in Washington January 20, 2009.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (R) holds hands with his wife Jill along with relatives as they walk on a road named after their late son Joseph 'Beau' Bide in the village of Sojevo on August 17, 2016. Biden said that the United States would remain a 'champion' of an independent Kosovo, but he firmly warned its leaders against the 'cancer' of corruption. On his first visit to Kosovo since 2009 -- the year after it unilaterally declared independence from Serbia -- Biden held talks with President Hashim Thaci and other leaders before a dedication ceremony naming a road after his late son.
(ARMEND NIMANI/AFP/Getty Images)
US vice president Joe Biden (C) walks with his son in law Howard Krien (L) during a visit to a local food court in Singapore on July 26, 2013. Biden is on a two-day official visit to Singapore after India where officials say he will tackle tensions over the disputed South China Sea 'head on.'
(MOHD FYROL/AFP/Getty Images)
US Vice President Joe Biden (3rd L) and his three grandchildren look at a koala during a visit to Taronga Zoo in Sydney on July 19, 2016. US and Australian troops plan to step up training so they are 'fully prepared' to answer challenges in the Pacific, Biden said amid rising tensions over Beijing's claims in the South China Sea.
(JESSICA HROMAS/AFP/Getty Images)
Vice President of the United States Joe Biden (C) and family attend the 2016 ESPYS at Microsoft Theater on July 13, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.
(Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images)
Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, son of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, addresses the final session of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina September 6, 2012.
Chief Executive Officer of the AFL Gillon McLachlan, President of the MCC Stephen Smith and Chairman of the AFL Mike Fitzpatrick pose for a photograph with US Vice President Joe Biden and his granddaughters during the 2016 AFL Round 17 match between the Carlton Blues and the West Coast Eagles at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on July 17, 2016 in Melbourne, Australia.
(Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Media/Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 13: Dr. Jill Biden and her grand-daughter Natalie Biden try samples of food as they meet with students and staff during a visit to the Lycee Guillaume Tirel on June 13, 2016 in Paris, France. The college serves as a school for cooking and hotel services.
(Photo by Owen Franken/Corbis via Getty Images)
U.S. Vice President-elect Joe Biden, carrying his grandson Hunter Biden, departs following a Sunday morning service at Holy Trinity Church, a Roman Catholic congregation in Washington, January 18, 2009.
Second lady Dr. Jill Biden and her grand-daughter Natalie attend mass at Notre-Dame Cathedral on June 12, 2016 in Paris, France.
(Photo by Owen Franken/Corbis via Getty Images)
Vice-President Joe Biden and sons Hunter Biden (L) and Beau Biden walk in the Inaugural Parade January 20, 2009 in Washington, DC. Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States, becoming the first African-American to be elected President of the US.
(Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
Vice President of the United States Joe Biden, wife and Second Lady of the United States Dr. Jill Biden and family members attend University Of Pennsylvania Commencement keynote address delivered by Lin Manuel Miranda during University of Pennsylvania 260th Commencement Ceremony at Franklin Field at the University of Pennsylvania on May 16, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
(Photo by Gilbert Carrasquillo/WireImage)
US Vice President Joe Biden (C) leaves the Church of the Holy Sepulchre with his family on March 9, 2016 during his visit in Jerusalem's Old City.
(RONEN ZVULUN/AFP/Getty Images)
Vice President of the United States Joe Biden (C), his wife Dr. Jill Biden (C-L), and his granddaughter Naomi Biden (C-R) visit Arasta Bazaar, at Sultan Ahmed in Istanbul, Turkey on January 22, 2016.
(Photo by Salih Zeki Fazlioglu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
US Vice President Joe Biden (2nd L) stands with his daughter Ashley Biden (L), his wife Jill Biden (2nd R) and son-in-law Howard Krien (R) after being being presented with a new orchid hybrid plant (pictured C) named 'Joe and Jill Biden' during a visit to the National Orchid Garden in Singapore on July 26, 2013. Biden is on a two-day official visit to Singapore after India where officials say he will tackle tensions over the disputed South China Sea 'head on.'
(MOHD FYROL/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and his wife Jill wave as they listen to Biden's son, Beau Biden, address the final session of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, September 6, 2012.
(REUTERS/Philip Scott Andrews)
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (C) buys an ice-cream at a shop as he tours a Hutong alley with his granddaughter Finnegan Biden (R) and son Hunter Biden in Beijing December 5, 2013.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden as he is greeted by his daughter Ashley before accepting a Father of the Year award in New York, U.S., June 14, 2016. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Joe Biden (L) is sworn in as the Vice President of the U.S by Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens (not in photo) as the Biden children Beau (R), Hunter (C), and Ashley watch in Washington, January 20, 2009. REUTERS/Jason Reed (UNITED STATES)
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (2nd L) and his wife Jill Biden (2nd R), pose for a photo with their daughter Ashley and son-in-law Dr. Howard Krein in front of an orchid named "Dendrobium Joe and Jill Biden" in their honour, at the National Orchid Garden in Singapore July 26, 2013. REUTERS/Tim Chong (SINGAPORE - Tags: POLITICS ENVIRONMENT)
NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 7: Ashley Biden and Joe Biden attend Gilt x Livelihood Launch Event at 6 St. John's Lane on February 7, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Aurora Rose/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)
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Biden's advisers contend that those past policy positions will matter less to most voters, both in the Democratic primary and the general election, than their assessments of Trump's moral fitness for the job.
In Iowa this week, Biden tore into what he sees as Trump's shortcomings on that front.
"The words of a president matter," he said in a Wednesday speech. "They can appeal to the better angels of our nature. But they can also unleash the deepest, darkest forces in this nation."
A day later at the Iowa State Fair, Biden said, "Everything the president's said and done encourages white supremacists."
His words resonated with Staci Beekhuizen, a teacher in Lee County, Iowa, who called Biden's Wednesday address "presidential."
"The vice president showed us exactly what we need right now," she said.
Tom Harter, who attended the Burlington, Iowa, speech with his 90-year-old mother, said there was something "calming" about Biden's takedown of Trump.
"He has a stature about him," Harter said.
Trump also took notice of Biden's speech, calling it boring. The president later lashed out at his Democratic Party critics, accusing them of bringing racism into the national discourse.
Other candidates joined Biden this week in hammering Trump, who has bristled at any suggestion that his harsh, anti-immigrant rhetoric contributed to the shooting in El Paso. During visits Wednesday to El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, Trump repeatedly tangled with his adversaries, including presidential candidate and former Rep. Beto O'Rourke, an El Paso native.
O'Rourke and Sen. Cory Booker delivered high profile remarks following the shooting this week, with Booker choosing as his venue the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where a white supremacist in 2015 killed nine black citizens as they prayed. Both candidates trail Biden and several others in the 2020 Democratic field.
But even as Biden's top competitors shred Trump, they have built their central campaign pitches around something else.
Sanders and Warren, in particular, are economic populists of the left. California Sen. Kamala Harris released her first paid ad this week centered mostly on voters' economic concerns.
Iowa State Rep. Dennis Cohoon, who has endorsed Biden, said that while he believes the former vice president can compete on policy, his best argument remains one aimed at the incumbent president.
"If you know Joe Biden," Cohoon said, "you know he's the right man for this moment."
Associated Press reporter Thomas Beaumont contributed to this report.