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Joe Biden's reboot: A "wrap the bow" strategy

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

On Tuesday, Joe Biden told his advisers he wanted to give a speech in South Carolina to address, and preempt, the mounting attacks on his record concerning race and civil rights. Sources close to Biden told me he was still rewriting the draft on Saturday in the car en route to Sumter, South Carolina, where he gave the speech to a mostly black audience.

  • "Given the coverage we got coming out of the debate ... we could die by death by a thousand cuts here," said a source familiar with the thinking in Biden’s camp.
  • "So it was either you wrap it all up in a bow and you say, 'Look, this is who I am. Barack Obama picked me, so if it was good enough for Barack Obama it's good enough for me' ... or we could have fought each one of these battles individually."
  • "This was an attempt to wrap it all up in a bow."

Between the lines: Biden's interview with CNN anchor Chris Cuomo and his speech on Saturday signaled a more assertive approach from the Democratic front-runner.

  • In Biden's Sumter speech, he emphasized his close relationship with Obama, defended himself against Sen. Kamala Harris' busing attack, expressed regret for his comments about his work with segregationists, and pitched a progressive vision for criminal justice reform — trying to preempt attacks on his support for the 1994 crime bill. 
  • "Anyone who believes that the VP is going to take distortions and out-of-context snippets of his record without fighting back should have been disabused of that notion," a Biden adviser said.

Behind the scenes: Advisers say Biden was ready for Sen. Bernie Sanders to attack him on the debate stage for being insufficiently progressive, as his camp hinted it would come. Biden anticipated that busing might come up in the debate, aides said, but they said he did not expect Harris to misleadingly imply that he opposed the local voluntary busing that took her to school as a child.

  • Biden told Cuomo: "I wasn't prepared for the person coming at me the way she came at — she knew Beau [Biden's late son], she knows me, I don't — anyway, I — but here's the deal. What I do know — and it's the good and the bad news, the American people think they know me, and they know me. 
  • "Since that occurred, I had the most sought-after endorsement for the mayor of Atlanta, a black woman who is a great leader, endorse me. I’ve had numerous members of a Black Caucus endorse me."