Joe Biden has not had a great summer.
Recent polling in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire suggests that after months of being the frontrunner in a packed Democratic presidential field, Mr Biden’s support may be softening.
One outlier poll from Monmouth University published last week showed Mr Biden in a virtual three-way tie with Vermont senator Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, the senator from Massachusetts who has risen steadily in the polls and is attracting large crowds.
“Joe Biden is still the frontrunner, but he is looking over his shoulder now at Elizabeth Warren,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Boston-based Democratic strategist.
“Campaigns are won in June, July and August, and Elizabeth Warren has won June, July and August,” she added.
After a whistle-stop summer of state fairs and barbecues and ice cream socials, the number of Democrats looking to take on Donald Trump is beginning to narrow. With the Iowa caucuses just under five months away, 20 Democrats are vying to be the party’s presidential candidate, down from the more than two dozen that started on the campaign trail.
Analysts say the list is likely to slim further in the coming weeks, as presidential hopefuls fail to meet the polling and donation requirements to participate in live televised debates, or fall short of their fundraising targets for the third quarter, which ends September 30.
And while South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg and Kamala Harris, the senator from California, both saw a surge of interest earlier in the summer, Mr Biden is still seen as the odds-on favourite to win the party’s nomination.
The former vice-president has claimed that with his widespread popularity, especially among white working-class voters and African-Americans, he is the candidate best suited to beat Mr Trump. Last month, his wife, Jill, was more explicit in her pitch, telling voters in New Hampshire that even if Mr Biden was not their preferred candidate, he was the only one who could win the White House.
“You know you may like another candidate better but you have to look at who’s going to win,” she said. “Joe is that person.”
But a series of gaffes and persistent questions about Mr Biden’s age — at 76, he would be the oldest US president ever elected — have plagued his campaign for much of the summer, and look to be a theme on the trail heading into the autumn.
At one town hall in Iowa last month, Mr Biden confused then-UK prime minister Theresa May with both Margaret Thatcher and German chancellor Angela Merkel. At the same event, he said that “poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids”, before quickly adding: “Wealthy kids, black kids, Asian kids, no, I really mean it, but think how we think about it.”
More recently, after telling a war story that conflated several different incidents, Mr Biden insisted voters should not focus on the “details” of what he is saying.
“The details are irrelevant in terms of decision-making,” Mr Biden told a public radio station in Iowa earlier this week. “That has nothing to do with the judgment of whether or not you send troops to war, the judgment of whether you bring someone home, the judgment of whether you decide on a healthcare policy.”
At the same time, his campaign has started playing down the importance of winning Iowa and New Hampshire — two states long seen as crucial for any candidate’s success. One senior campaign official reportedly said this week that Iowa was not a “must win” for Mr Biden, adding: “We know it’s going to be a dogfight there. The same is true in New Hampshire.”
When asked about Mr Biden’s weaknesses as a candidate, the campaign aide said he was “not as strong among younger voters” — an apparent U-turn from the start of the summer, when the campaign’s pollster said the former vice-president was “very well liked” by young people.
Ms Marsh said the campaign’s latest warning “tells you everything you need to know” about the fragility of Mr Biden’s frontrunner status.
“The issue for Joe Biden is when you are running as the inevitable candidate, when you say you are the strongest to go up against Donald Trump, and you don’t win the first two contests, you don’t look so invincible any more,” she said.
Mr Biden is often referred to as “Uncle Joe” by his fans, who see his propensity for gaffes as part of his charm. But many Democratic voters want a newer face to lead their party, rather than a man who was first elected to the Senate in 1972.
After the town hall in Iowa when Mr Biden compared “poor kids” and “white kids”, Elaine Imlau, 60, from Des Moines, was unimpressed.
“He’s got a lot of history and he has a lot of stories, and my dad would love him,” she said. But Mr Biden was not on her shortlist of preferred candidates, which included Ms Warren, Ms Harris, Mr Buttigieg and New Jersey senator Cory Booker.
“Seriously, I don’t want to see another old white guy up there,” she added. “It’s time for something different.”