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Joe Biden's bus tour all about good timing, Tom Vilsack says

Former Iowa governor rejects idea it's due to slip in polls

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden hands the microphone to former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden hands the microphone to former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (right) after speaking at a campaign stop Monday in Algona as part of Biden’s “No Malarkey” bus tour of Iowa. Vilsack has endorsed Biden for president and says doing a bus tour two months before the Iowa caucuses was a “good, smart move.” (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Tom Vilsack, who has been through a few Iowa campaigns, sees Joe Biden’s 18-county “No Malarkey” bus tour two months before the Iowa caucuses as “a good, smart move.”

“It’s about timing,” the former two-term Democratic Iowa governor said. “You want to get people energized and engaged and involved at the right time.”

By doing the eight-day tour of mostly rural counties now, the former vice president takes advantage of the interest rank-and-file Democrats are showing in the race for support in the Feb. 3 caucuses, Vilsack said during a phone interview Thursday from Colorado.

Previously, primarily party activists were involved, “but now we’re getting to the second and third and fourth tier people that potentially are caucusgoers. They are now just beginning to get engaged,” Vilsack said.

That’s critical to the Biden campaign — and to the Democratic Party’s chances of winning the 2020 general election against President Donald Trump, Vilsack said.

He rejects suggestions this bus tour is a gamble — a make-or-break moment for Biden, whose numbers in Iowa polls have slipped from first to as low as fourth.

But its success will depend on what voters make of dicey moments at some spots along the way — like Thursday in New Hampton, when an 83-year-old farmer told Biden he was ”too old for the job.” Biden, 77, offered to do pushups, according to an account by the Washington Post.

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Biden also has sought to add gold-plated endorsements at the start and end of his bus tour. First there was Vilsack, who campaigned with Biden for three days on the tour. Now former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry — who won the 2004 Democratic caucus — will join Biden at three stops Friday in Eastern Iowa.

For Biden, the bus tour — which ends Saturday in Cedar Rapids — is a good start to connecting with Iowans who had the former vice president on their shortlist and now are making a decision to caucus for him, Vilsack said.

“I had a lot of people come up to me and say ‘I had Joe Biden and Amy Klobuchar, I had Joe Biden and Mayor Pete, I had Joe Biden and Cory Booker, and I’m making my decision today to be a Biden supporter. I’m signing the “commit to caucus” card,’ ” he said.

In addition to the traditional Democrats, “I also saw people who self-identified as independents or where you self-identified as Republicans who were not happy with the president,” he said.

Some of them were Obama-Biden voters in 2008 and 2012 “who can come home in 2020,” Vilsack said.

Although the subset of Iowa Democrats who are “incredibly progressive” are attracted to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Vilsack thinks many Iowa Democrats are looking for a candidate who provides a contrast “to the sort of chaotic nature of President Trump — that we’re one tweet away from another dust-up.”

The majority of Iowa Democrats, Vilsack said, are looking for “calm and steady.”

“We’re a pretty practical lot here. I mean they elect people like me,” said Vilsack, who has been associated with Democratic centrist groups, “and even somebody like Tom Harkin, who was more practical with his progressiveness, which is why he kept getting reelected” as U.S. senator from Iowa.

“At the same time, the same people are voting for (Republican U.S. Sen.) Chuck Grassley. Some of them.”

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Kerry, a former Massachusetts senator, will join Biden for a 9:15 a.m. rally at Ushers Ferry Lodge, 5925 Seminole Valley Trail NE in Cedar Rapids; a 1:30 p.m. campaign stop at Johnson’s Restaurant and Reception Hall in Elkader; and a 5:45 p.m. event at the Opera House at the Hotel Winneshiek in Decorah.

On Saturday, Biden starts at 11 a.m. at American Legion Post 9 in Oelwein. After participating in an International Brotherhood of Teamsters candidate forum Saturday afternoon, he’s planning another event in Cedar Rapids, but details have not been announced.

Doors open 30 minutes before each event. RSVP at www.joebiden.com.

Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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