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Inside the Biden campaign: No Trump-like drama, but simmering friction below the surface

McClatchy Washington Bureau — By David Catanese McClatchy Washington Bureau

July 23-- WASHINGTON-It was January and Joe Biden's top aides saw the urgent need to make a change as they were hurtling toward bruising defeats in Iowa and New Hampshire.

So they approached Jennifer O'Malley Dillon, the widely heralded aide to former President Barack Obama who also had managed Beto O'Rourke's recently ended presidential campaign, discreetly about becoming campaign manager, according to three Democrats with knowledge of the situation, including one Biden adviser. The job could be hers immediately, if she wanted it.

But she did not want it-at least not yet.

"There was a sense that we were not trending in a positive direction and she had already moved her family to El Paso once this cycle and was not interested in uprooting again if we were heading down the tubes," said the Biden adviser.

O'Malley Dillon declined to comment on the record, but Biden spokesman T.J. Ducklo said the campaign never made her a formal offer to become manager until March, when she ultimately took the job after Biden had emerged as the likely Democratic nominee.

This delicate transition of power in Bidenworld could have sparked internal warfare at a critical moment in the 2020 race. But unlike the factional infighting prevalent in the orbits of President Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, Biden's team pulled off the change without much drama-a feat emblematic of the former vice president's campaign culture throughout the highs and lows of his journey from a former primary front-runner on the brink of demise to a favorite over the incumbent roughly 100 days out from the general election.

Since the 43-year-old O'Malley Dillon took the reins four months ago, following a short stint volunteering for the campaign's Nevada caucus operation, Biden has built a financial war chest comparable to Trump's, released a package of policy proposals that have been well-received by wary progressives, and established himself as a voice of empathy amid the coronavirus pandemic.

As his polling lead has swelled, aides now predict that in the coming months Biden will attempt to expand the Electoral College map more dramatically than previously expected. And it's all been accomplished largely in a virtual environment, where O'Malley Dillon has built a 1,600-person coordinated campaign structure without having the chance to meet most of her army in person.

"She's awesome sauce," said John Anzalone, Biden's pollster, of O'Malley Dillon. "She does it in an incredibly understated way. There's no drama to it. When she's on calls, you know she's in charge."

Even with all that's going right for Biden, some Democrats still grumble that the campaign has lacked decisiveness under O'Malley Dillon on the execution of big-picture strategy and state-level staffing, which lagged for months into the summer, frustrating applicants, lower-level staffers and allies.

"I will always question whether one person in Bidenworld is truly empowered," said one senior Biden aide. "That's not the way Bidenworld works. It's not like (David) Axelrod and (David) Plouffe. It's always a decision by committee."

This story is based on interviews with 18 senior and junior Biden aides and Democratic officials, allies and donors in contact with the campaign. Most were granted anonymity in exchange for candor and to avoid alienating Biden campaign brass.

THE OLD GUARD

When Biden sat down with his original campaign manager, Greg Schultz, in March to ask him to move into a new role, he wanted to make sure Schultz was still seen as an integral team member.

"Let's find a public event where you can stand next to me, so people realize your value in my world," Biden told Schultz, according to a senior aide familiar with the interaction.

The event would never happen, due to a world suddenly upended by the coronavirus. Nonetheless, Schultz saluted and embraced his new mission to act as a liaison between the campaign and the Democratic National Committee. If he was upset by the demotion, orchestrated by longtime Washington fixture Anita Dunn, there were no public indications.

While Biden's gesture to Schultz was taken as genuine, it also laid bare an underlying truth: Schultz was never fully empowered to make decisions with the key older guard advisers hovering: Mike Donilon, Biden's most trusted political aide often described as his "alter-ego"; Steve Ricchetti, a former chief of staff steeped in government contacts; Valerie Biden Owens, the candidate's sister, who had led Biden's Senate runs; and Dunn, who served with him in the White House. Not to mention, Jill Biden, who works as a sort of light-handed enforcer and gets involved in decisions when she sees her husband under siege without a shield.

Biden is fond of saying "an expert is always someone out of town with a briefcase," as a way to express his skepticism of outside advice. And yet, his key campaign leaders weren't all even in the same place even prior to the campaign being remote. Donilon, Ricchetti and Dunn didn't move to Philadelphia like the rest of the campaign, creating a physical gap between top leadership that often translated into delayed decision-making.

"It's like, we all agreed to this days ago. Why the hell hasn't it happened?" said one Biden staffer, citing a need for the older aides to adjust to a campaign cycle that quickly changes direction.

O'Malley Dillon was promised as a remedy to the confusion, but after months on the job, some began to see her as another bureaucratic layer that slowed the execution of well-laid game plans.

"There seems to be a lot of people in the process. You can't put that on the manager. Those cultures don't change that fast," said one prominent Democratic strategist, who stressed that these sort of tensions are normal on any campaign transitioning to a general election. "This is very different than Clintonworld, where everybody's trying to assassinate each other. It's much less aggressive and snake-biting."

'NOT A CAMPAIGN OF STARS'

What may feel like a knock against Team Biden is, to some, a central ingredient to why the campaign has worked.

"It's not a campaign based on a bunch of stars," said Tom Nides, a longtime party fundraiser and former deputy secretary of state.

Other than Symone Sanders, the highest-ranking African American adviser on the campaign and former CNN political commentator who is relatively new to Biden's circle, no adviser has yet received high-profile media treatment. Members of Biden's inner circle don't grant many on-the-record interviews. Many of Biden's communications aides were less known to the D.C. press corps in comparison to their colleagues who they ultimately bested in the Democratic primary.

Biden's campaign prides itself on the way it has readjusted its messaging to center around Trump's fateful handling of the coronavirus and juxtaposing it against Biden's character strengths.

In 2016, Democrats watched Trump create new controversies to distract from old ones, all the while hammering Clinton on her emails, which played into a preexisting lack of trust of her among voters.

This year, it's Trump vacillating between messages against Biden (from Ukraine corruption to "Sleepy Joe" to "Defund the police") as the Democrat's campaign has largely kept a laser-focus on the president's errant handling of the public health crisis day after day.

"Hillary was on the defensive way more, so we were always in crisis management mode. Went through emails, or the Benghazi stuff, or through Comey. That wears on people," said Nides, who credits Donilon and Ricchetti for resisting a consistent drumbeat to change Biden. "They've been the keeper of the 'let Biden be Biden' way and they deserve a lot of credit for it, through the darkest of times."

The communications shop, run by Kate Bedingfield, is guided by a focus on what matters to real voters-who like Biden, are older and more moderate-even as pundits cast doubts. Local TV interviews and nightly news broadcasts are prioritized over cable television and Twitter.

It's also been agile and willing to adapt in the era of COVID-19. When the campaign saw that its candidate-hosted podcast, "Here's the Deal," wasn't drawing a large amount of listeners, advisers swiftly canned it, deciding to dedicate more time to its long-form e-newsletters, which were achieving higher engagement from supporters. They believe they've been successful in aggressively pushing back against what they see as false narratives generated in the media.

But some Democrats see signs of an aggrieved campaign carrying a chip on its shoulder, quick to dismiss criticism by pointing to their success so far. The tweets of O'Malley Dillion's husband, Patrick, lamenting the "professional second-guessing class" have drawn particular notice from some supporters, who see the primary triumph largely as a product of Biden's biography over any staff hire.

"They ran a lackluster of a campaign in the primary," said one Democratic strategist. "Now they're showing slight signs of arrogance. You shouldn't be thinking you walk on water."

GOING LOCAL

Another frequent target of criticism for the Biden campaign is its delay in hiring top staff in many key battleground states until the summer. Aides said they wanted to see how the pandemic affected their fundraising before making important hires.

They also added that they wanted to ensure they had full buy-in from state Democratic leaders on their personnel, a factor some Democrats think was missing from the Obama and Clinton campaigns.

"If you walk in with a state leadership that the state Democratic infrastructure feels bought into, you just literally start out with so much more efficiency," said one Biden aide. "And Joe Biden believes in the party structure. He came through it."

Part of Schultz's new strategic role is to work with state parties to identify where Biden could assist local candidates in competitive races. This approach has taken hold in Arizona, where Democrats need to flip just three seats to take the state Senate and two to wrest control of the state House.

"The emphasis on down-ballot races and literally folding in, emphasizing how we get Democrats elected to the state legislature, to the corporation commission, is so refreshing and so effective," said Felecia Rotellini, the Arizona Democratic Party chairwoman.

Of course, with just over 100 days until the election, big tests remain. The unveiling of the running mate, pulling off a largely virtual convention and successfully navigating this fall's debates all offer chances that could reset the race.

Much of Bidenworld is bracing for the narrative to change, the race to tighten and doubts to reemerge. But they're also relishing the opportunity to prove their doubters wrong again.

"Many campaigns would've imploded in January and the first half of February," said a high-ranking Biden adviser. "Our candidate defines the word resilience."

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