DUBUQUE, Iowa - For months, President Donald Trump and his allies have tried to cast his Democratic challengers as radical socialists bent on yanking the country far further to the left than most Americans might find comfortable.

Joe Biden, in the opening days of his presidential campaign, is getting in the way of that argument and getting under Trump's skin.

Nearly six dozen times on Wednesday morning Trump retweeted support for him among purported firefighters, whose union has endorsed Biden and whose members have surrounded the former vice president at all of his opening events. For days Trump has ignored his advisers and repeatedly criticized Biden, at a rate that exceeded his reactions to the other 19 candidates in the Democratic field.

Biden has attempted to thwart the president with a frontal assault on Trump's morality, particularly his defense of some of those at the 2017 march of white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia. But Biden also is representing himself as Trump's opposite in another way: as an incrementalist throwback to the days before the president began upending the country's institutions, hardly a socialist but a candidate well within the norms of both capitalism and politics.

Biden's implicit argument to Democrats, meantime, is he has embraced enough of the policies animating the party's ascendant left to make him acceptable as the standard-bearer - but not enough to alienate the working class voters the party desperately wants to win back in 2020.

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Biden supporters attend his rally at the Grand River Center in Dubuque, Iowa, on Tuesday. Washington Post photo by Melina Mara
Biden supporters attend his rally at the Grand River Center in Dubuque, Iowa, on Tuesday. Washington Post photo by Melina Mara

He has embraced raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, a posture that advances on Hillary Clinton's stutter-step approach to raising wages in 2016, and he has touted a plan to allow anyone to go to community college free.

But he has spurned others, calling for improvements to Obamacare but declining to back a Medicare-for-all plan backed by many of his party's 2020 candidates. Rather than railing on the wealthy, he takes pains to point out they, too, are good people. While he has talked about the need to address climate change, he has yet to embrace anything approaching the Green New Deal.

He has avoided his Democratic rivals - and the specific policy proposals they are pushing - almost entirely. He has also ignored their criticism of his willingness to raise money from corporate lobbyists, his support of free trade agreements, or his vote in favor of the Iraq War.

On Tuesday night, Biden stood before a crowd of several hundred here in a ballroom on the banks of the Mississippi River and draped himself in the legacy of President Barack Obama, the party's most popular figure.

"They talk about, there's a division in the Democratic Party," he said. "We agree on basically everything, all of us running. All 400 of us."

That was not true, but appeared intended to position Democrats as a unified bloc opposing the president, with Biden as its head.

Biden's campaign advisers feel the president has played into their hands, effectively defining him for the moment as the candidate to beat. That is helpful to Biden, because it seems to confirm what Biden and his supporters are positing: that he is the Democrat most able to take on Trump.

Biden addresses the crowd at the Grand River Center in Dubuque, Iowa, on Tuesday. Washington Post photo by Melina Mara
Biden addresses the crowd at the Grand River Center in Dubuque, Iowa, on Tuesday. Washington Post photo by Melina Mara

Some Trump campaign officials believe Biden's nomination would blunt the heightened excitement among Democratic voters and that he would have a difficult time rekindling the coalition that pushed Obama to victory twice.

Others, however, see Biden - and to some extent Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) - as the biggest threats to Trump because of their appeal to working class voters, particularly in the upper Midwest.

Those officials are concerned that Trump's visible reactions to Biden give Biden political ammunition and fundraising opportunities. They are eager to have Trump instead lump all Democrats together as radicals. But Trump pays close attention to television coverage and polls, both of which Biden has dominated over the past few days.

While Trump's team initially saw a rough rollout for Biden - with heavy focus on criticism about his Senate record and smaller crowds than other candidates have attracted - Trump was annoyed by Biden's focus on Charlottesville and could not resist going on the attack.

For his part, Biden seems to go out of his way to embrace the era before Trump, even to the extent of complementing those who others in his party now demonize.

"Let's get something straight. This country was not built by Wall Street, bankers, hedge fund managers," he said, in rhetoric that mimicked Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). But then, he added, "They're not necessarily bad."

He is eager to pitch himself as the one carrying out Obama's legacy, often talking about "finishing the job."

"Folks I want to stop here and say something that I don't think is said often enough," Biden said here. "President Obama has extraordinary character - no, really I mean it - extraordinary integrity and is a man of absolute decency. When he was president our kids had someone to look up to. I was proud. Every day, every day as I stood next to him as his vice president."

Biden stops in at The Cone Shoppe for an ice cream cone and to meet Iowa voters in Monticello on Tuesday. Washington Post photo by Melina Mara
Biden stops in at The Cone Shoppe for an ice cream cone and to meet Iowa voters in Monticello on Tuesday. Washington Post photo by Melina Mara

At least at the start, Biden's strategy seems to be working. An initial wave of polls has him far ahead of the pack, gaining strength since announcing his campaign and illustrating what Biden's advisers have been saying for months: His support could be more durable than many believe. In a CNN poll released Tuesday, 39 percent of voters sided with Biden, 20 points higher than Sanders. A survey done for the Boston Globe in New Hampshire had him at 20 percent, 8 points over Sanders.

Yet the passionate, even angry, appeals of Sanders, Warren and other candidates have sparked enthusiasm among Democrats that was not evident during Biden's initial campaign foray, which began in Pittsburgh on Monday before moving through Iowa Tuesday and Wednesday.

During former congressman Beto O'Rourke's first days in Iowa as a presidential candidate, he held a half dozen events a day, in rooms that were packed so full it was hard to move. Biden has held two events each day, often not starting until noon, with crowds that are respectable but far from overwhelming.

His schedule seems of a piece with his campaign's effort to stay relentlessly on message. His first few speeches have contained familiar anecdotes, rarely breaking new ground. He has not taken a single question from voters. Instead, his campaign has attempted to use scripted moments, and well-crafted videos, to get their message across.

Biden brushed aside reporters after one event, engaging a question about distinctions in the Democratic field for only a few moments while stopping for ice cream.

"I'm not going to get into a debate with my colleagues here," Biden said. "There's plenty of time on the stage. And I'm proud of my record."

He made clear, though, he did not want to continue talking, turning to a chocolate and vanilla swirl and saying, "I'm a free ice cream eater."

Biden, however, has not been able to fully avoid being Biden. During his rallies, he is at moments the wonky lifelong politician, quoting German philosopher Immanuel Kant, talking about arcane tax laws, or pausing to say: "Excuse me for, as we said in the senate, a point of personal privilege."

That can accentuate his age, 76. He spoke at one point about putting in a nickel to borrow a bicycle. He talked about the 1981 tax bill, for which he voted. He spoke about driving his 1951 Plymouth.

Biden's first swing through Iowa included a stop at the Veterans Memorial Building in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Tuesday. Washington Post photo by Melina Mara
Biden's first swing through Iowa included a stop at the Veterans Memorial Building in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Tuesday. Washington Post photo by Melina Mara

He has lingered after events, putting on full display an affectionate style some women have said in recent weeks made the uncomfortable. Voters often come up to him to give him hugs, or as he clasps their hands or shoulders, thrusting his finger into someone's chest to emphasize a point.

He has largely avoided specifics by telling crowds that have been waiting for hours to hear him that he did not want them to stand any longer to hear him talk about his policy proposals. He will be back, he told them, and he will be sure then to outline his positions in detail.

"I'm going to talk to you a lot," he assured the crowd in Dubuque. "You're going to hear me a lot when I come back in specifics."

Catherine Basile, a 72-year-old retired teacher from Cedar Rapids, said she is a bit ambivalent about Biden running, worried a third loss atop two earlier humiliating ones would taint his legacy. But she also sees him as perhaps the best candidate to challenge Trump.

"A woman? An African American? A gay person?" she asked. "All of those would be fine with me. But how does everyone else think? Have we stirred up so much muck?"

Colleen Kersch, a 51-year-old librarian from Dubuque, came wearing a sweatshirt that read, "A woman's place is in the House and the Senate." Biden, seeing it as he shook hands in the crowd, told her he agreed with the sentiment.

Kersch said she has been shaken since 2016, when she voted for Clinton. Her priorities have changed, and now she is strongly in Biden's camp and eager for whatever she thinks it takes for Trump to be defeated.

"I don't really want a woman to run against Donald Trump," she said, quickly adding, "Not that I don't want a woman president."

Her sentiment was echoed at Biden's first public campaign event in Pittsburgh during his introduction by the head of the international firefighter's union.

"Let me shoot straight with you, and this might not be popular in parts of the Democratic Party," said union president, Harold Schaitberger. "We can't have a nominee that's too far left. It's just that simple. A candidate that has high-minded ideals, maybe honorable ideas, but little chance of winning."

This article was written by Matt Viser, a reporter for The Washington Post. The Washington Post's Ashley Parker and Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.