SPARKS, Nev. - Joe Biden called an octogenarian voter a "damn liar" and challenged him to a push-up contest. He dismissed a heckler as an "idiot." He commanded the news media to focus on President Donald Trump instead of the overseas business dealings of his son, Hunter Biden, demanding of one reporter, "Ask the right question!"
For months now, Biden has been confronted on the campaign trail with questions, attacks and misinformation concerning his son - encounters that have taken on a dramatic feel, given the uncertainty of how Biden will respond. As he began to address the crowd in a high school gym in Sparks, Nevada, this month, a group of protesters held up letters spelling out a taunt that Trump uses regularly: "Where's Hunter?" Biden responded by saying his son "sends his best regards."
As the Senate impeachment trial of the president continues this week, there is renewed focus in Washington on Hunter Biden, who held a seat on the board of a Ukrainian energy company at a time when his father was vice president and handling diplomacy with the country.
And Biden is no longer just dealing with questions about his son from hecklers: On Wednesday, he rejected the suggestion that he and his son testify in the trial in a swap for the testimony of current or former Trump administration officials, an idea raised by an attendee at an Iowa campaign event that has been dismissed by congressional Democrats. "This is a constitutional issue, and we're not going to turn it into a farce, into some kind of political theater," Biden said.
For Biden, the stream of questions about his son touches on a vulnerability for his candidacy and presents a fine line for him to navigate. As a former vice president, he wants to show that he exudes statesmanship but also wants to prove to Democrats desperate to oust Trump that he has the fortitude and temperament take on the president.
He can be by turns calm or curt as he stresses that his son committed no wrongdoing in his overseas business dealings. For the most part, he has kept his cool, but he has also been prone to displays of anger.
"It's a very personal issue," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who worked closely with Biden in the Obama administration when he acted as the de facto labor liaison. She said Trump was "an evil genius on the issue of trying to cut other people up, and cut them up this way."
She said the "raw emotion" Biden displayed in response was perfectly understandable. "This is a dad defending his son," she said.
At issue is a unsubstantiated theory pushed by Trump that Biden took action in Ukraine as vice president in order to help his son, who at the time held a lucrative position as a board member of Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian energy company.
Trump has claimed without evidence that Biden pushed for the ouster of a Ukrainian prosecutor in order to derail an investigation into Burisma. The president's phone call in July to the Ukrainian president asking him to investigate the activities of the Bidens in that country is at the center of the impeachment charges.
There is no evidence of any illegality by either Biden. But Hunter Biden's position with Burisma - for which he was paid as much as $50,000 in some months - worried some members of President Barack Obama's administration at the time, and Hunter Biden has since acknowledged that, in hindsight, he exercised "poor judgment" in taking the position.
The scrutiny of his son could pose a difficult political problem for Biden: He is presenting himself to voters as a regular guy with working-class Pennsylvania roots, and his son's high-paying position with an overseas business could strike some as the type of insider arrangement long familiar in Washington.
And for Democratic primary voters weighing how to defeat Trump, the fact that they can now picture the general-election playbook the president would use against Biden carries risk for him, some strategists have warned.
In subtle and overt ways, the issue remains alive on the campaign trail - even among people who are sympathetic to Biden. In Centerville, Iowa, on Sunday, Biden's wife, Jill Biden, was asked whether her family was prepared for an onslaught of attacks. She replied that the Bidens are resilient.
Biden's national poll numbers have been remarkably steady, including in recent months after the news broke of Trump's effort to get Ukraine to investigate the Bidens. Initially, many Democrats worried that Biden appeared slow and uneven in his response as he vacillated between lashing the president and trying to change the subject. His advisers, too, were torn in internal deliberations over how to handle the developments.
Biden eventually settled on a rhythm of insisting that he and his son did nothing wrong and seeking to bring the attention back to Trump. All along, Biden and his surrogates have argued that Trump's attacks prove that the president is most concerned about facing Biden in a general election.
His campaign has also aggressively tried to shape the media narrative on Ukraine. This week, it circulated a memo urging the news media to make clear that Trump's claims about Biden are unfounded. And it released a video in which a Biden spokesman, Andrew Bates, walked through Trump's claims and explained, sometimes in profane terms, why they were bogus.
"Why is Donald Trump doing this?" Bates asked. "He knows he can't beat Joe Biden."
But questions about Hunter Biden have followed his father around the country - from a news conference in Los Angeles to a town hall event in rural Iowa to interviews with reporters aboard his campaign bus. On multiple occasions, he has been interrupted by protesters invoking his son.
Biden has occasionally flashed his anger and frustration.
"Let's focus on the problem," he told reporters this fall, aiming his fire at Trump. "Focus on this man, what he's doing that no president has ever done. No president!" By the end of that declaration, he was practically shouting.
At other times he has responded calmly, as he did in Sparks when protesters held up letters spelling out "Where's Hunter?"
"This new Republican Party, I've been the object of their attention and affection for a while here," Biden said later at that event. "You saw, for example - I understand what it's like to have my surviving son maligned as he has. I understand what it is to have lies told about me."
In late December, a succession of hecklers interrupted him at the beginning of a town hall event in Milford, New Hampshire, including one who asked, "How much money did you make in Ukraine with your son?"
Biden responded by saying that he had released 21 years of tax returns. "Your guy hasn't released one," he said. "What's he hiding?" The crowd roared with approval. But as the disruption continued, Biden offered his own appraisal of the heckler: "He's an idiot."
A particularly combative moment came in December at a town hall event in New Hampton, Iowa, when an 83-year-old man took issue with Biden's age (he is 77) and then proceeded to accuse him, falsely, of having sent his son to work in Ukraine and having sold access to the president.
"You're a damn liar, man," Biden responded in a tense exchange that also included Biden challenging the man to a push-up contest or an IQ contest. At another point, Biden ordered the man, "Get your words straight, Jack!" (Biden later said he probably should not have challenged the man to a push-up contest.)
The reaction to that episode varied. In a primary race in which Democratic voters are eager for a candidate who can stand up to Trump, Biden's fiery responses may provide encouragement that he can handle himself in a heated back-and-forth.
"If anybody's wondering if Joe Biden can take on Donald Trump and is ready for a fight, I'd point you to the video in Iowa," Symone Sanders, a senior adviser for the Biden campaign, said at an event hosted by Politico.
The next day, Joe Stutler, 56, who came to see Biden in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, spoke approvingly of his response. As a cautionary tale, Stutler cited the discredited attacks on John Kerry's military record made during the 2004 campaign by the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and said he wanted a candidate "that has the gumption to push back."
"There are folks that are saying, 'Oh, well, you know, maybe he should have been a little nicer, blah, blah, blah, blah,'" he said. "No. If somebody's going to talk smack, call him on it."
But there is also a delicate line between fiery and bellicose. In response to the tense exchange with the Iowa voter, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee said Biden "became unglued," adding, "A hallmark of Biden's 2020 campaign is him losing it on voters and reporters when pressed about Ukraine."
For his part, Biden has plenty of critical things to say about Trump, but he has publicly set a boundary for how he talks about the president. Campaigning in New Hampshire late last month, Biden noted that he had not "said a thing, and I'm not going to, about his family."
"The way I was raised," Biden said, "you don't go after somebody's kids."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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