Yet here was Mr. Biden again, at 76, trudging through another dog day of August in the extreme heat. He had just finished up a small rally in central Iowa, held in a gazebo-like party space overlooking a pond. He seemed a bit riled up, and not in a good way.
“Where are we going?” the candidate glared down at a young staffer in front of his podium a few minutes after finishing his remarks. “Where are we going,” he said again, more pointedly. He became annoyed at a Fox News reporter who asked him about the relative smallness of his crowds compared to those some of the other candidates were attracting — in this case, Ms. Warren, who had drawn a reported 12,000 at a rally in Minneapolis the night before. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Mr. Biden said.
Affection for Mr. Biden runs deep, especially among older voters and with traditional Democratic constituencies such as organized labor and African-Americans. “I’d be comfortable having him come over and have potato soup with us,” said Virginia Petersten, of Johnston, Iowa, who had just watched Mr. Biden speak for over an hour in Urbandale, Iowa.
Beyond this potato soup primary, Mr. Biden’s crowds have been undeniably smaller and less raucous than other top-tier candidates, namely Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders.
In a tour of about a dozen of these campaign events across the early-voting states during the second half of August, Mr. Biden’s audiences were moderately enthusiastic, always polite and certainly appreciative of his visits. Given their revulsion for the incumbent, many attendees expressed gratitude that Mr. Biden was running for president. But they struggled to identify why he was running, or what the former vice president represented beyond a known and decent entity who was not Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders.
“If I were in his shoes, I don’t know if I felt I had a whole lot more to achieve in life,” Ryan Comstock, of Urbandale, said of Mr. Biden’s motivation after a campaign event. Mr. Comstock, who voted for Mr. Trump in 2016, said he would likely participate in the Democratic caucuses next year. On Mr. Biden, he added, “part of me wants to think that he cares that much about America.”