INDEPENDENCE, Iowa — Joseph R. Biden Jr. expressed frustration Thursday at Senator Kamala Harris’s pointed criticism about his 1970s-era opposition to busing, arguing that Democrats should “be talking about the future.” But he resisted the opportunity to return fire at Ms. Harris for voicing a position similar to his on school integration.
One day after she said that local school districts should determine whether to bus students, effectively the argument Mr. Biden had made in the face of Ms. Harris’s attack at last week’s debate, the former vice president simply said that she was “absolutely right.”
Mr. Biden called Ms. Harris, who has jumped in the polls since her debate performance, “a good person, smart as she can be.”
But as he addressed reporters after jogging through a July 4 parade on a steamy morning here, Mr. Biden repeatedly made clear that he was irritated at being targeted for positions he had held more than four decades ago.
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“This is kind of a new thing, you know we’re going back 40 or 50 years now to a vote,” he said, vowing that he would not take on his Democratic rivals in a similar way. “I’m not going to go back and talk about the record of anyone from 10, 20, 30 years ago,” Mr. Biden said, adding that “everything is lost in context.”
Ms. Harris has surged with African-American voters, a crucial constituency for Mr. Biden, since her performance at the debate. He bridled at the suggestion that he should show contrition for opposing federally mandated busing — he once called the approach “asinine” — during his tenure as a senator from Delaware. “I don’t have to atone,” he said. “Look, my record stands for itself.”
Mr. Biden made the case to “move on and talk about what we do now,” but he may have handed new fodder to his critics on the left. His comments minimized busing, an issue that still lingers for many Americans who experienced the mandated integration practice or whose children attend schools that are de facto segregated by race.
“Busing is something 99 percent of the American people don’t even know what we’re talking about,” he argued.
Mr. Biden said he was satisfied with his debate performance, which was widely criticized. He dismissed several polls taken in the aftermath of the back-to-back forums that show his once solid lead evaporating.
“I’m still way ahead,” he said.
But Mr. Biden is not the only candidate struggling with how to talk about school integration. After Ms. Harris found success confronting him on busing, she has appeared uncertain about how to characterize her own views on the matter.
At a Democratic picnic outside Des Moines on Wednesday, Ms. Harris was pressed by reporters to explain whether she supports federally mandated busing, and she appeared to indicate the decision should be in the hands of localities.
“I believe that any tool that is in the toolbox should be considered by a school district,” she said.
In the days after the debate, a number of Mr. Biden’s allies and aides said privately that they were surprised by Ms. Harris’s criticisms of Mr. Biden’s civil rights record. Some even said they found her words hurtful.
Asked to respond to that, she said Wednesday that she stood by her concern that voters needed to hear the full context of “who people were in history,” singling out politicians “who built a career on segregation of the races and who worked very hard against busing.” Mr. Biden has previously faced criticism for detailing his working relationship with segregationist senators.
“I don’t think anyone should take personal offense in terms of any supporters, or feel any kind of hurt about talking about that,” she said. “Because the reality is, it happened, and the people most affected are the children of America.”
Ms. Harris’s aides have argued that the discussion on the debate stage that carried over to Iowa this week is about the positions Mr. Biden took in a highly contentious period of the country’s history. But the California senator plainly does not want to revive the issue as a matter of policy today.
Sensing her unease, Mr. Biden’s aides have pounced, prolonging the most combative period of the Democratic primary to date.
“It’s disappointing that Senator Harris chose to distort Vice President Biden’s position on busing — particularly now that she is tying herself in knots trying not to answer the very question she posed to him!” Kate Bedingfield, Mr. Biden’s deputy campaign manager, wrote on Twitter on Wednesday night.
By Thursday afternoon, Ms. Harris’s campaign was invoking Mr. Biden’s reversal on taxpayer-financed abortion.
“Remind me what his position on Hyde was a month ago?” asked Lily Adams, Ms. Harris’s communications director, alluding to Mr. Biden’s newfound support for the Hyde Amendment
Returning to Iowa for the first time since she vaulted into the top tier of the race, Ms. Harris made no mention of the former vice president in her stump speech, instead unveiling a new line of attack on President Trump.
“We have a predator living in the White House,” she told Democrats in West Des Moines on Wednesday.
Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris were hardly the only Democrats in Iowa for July 4th. Beto O’Rourke joined Mr. Biden for the parade in Independence, which was filled with fire trucks, beauty queens and a few supporters of Mr. Trump who voiced their enthusiasm for the president when volunteers for some of the Democrats in the 2020 race chanted their candidates’ names.
Even as Mr. Biden soberly addressed questions about integration and race in America, outside an old train depot, he couldn’t fully escape the Fourth’s festivities.
“I’ve always supported voluntary busing,” he said, moments before a teenage girl’s voice pierced the air. “It’s Joe Biden!” she said.
He turned to the street to see a group of girls riding in the back of a flatbed trailer from the parade being pulled by a truck. “Be careful!” Mr. Biden told them.
Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont also hit the parade circuit, beginning his day in Slater, Iowa, about half an hour from Des Moines.
The scene was a sharp contrast to the one unfolding in Washington, where President Trump had ordered up a military-style event complete with tanks and fighter jets.
In Slater, a yellow truck representing the Story County Democrats, bore a multicolored sign that read, “love is love.” Girl Scouts congregated around a pickup truck.
Mr. Sanders arrived at the parade in sneakers and walked through the town and leafy side streets, waving and belting out, “Hello!”
He occasionally took pictures or shook hands, but generally stayed in the middle of the street as more than two dozen activists and people associated with his campaign followed, chanting progressive slogans such as, “We don’t need no super PAC! Bernie Sanders got our back!”
The parade observers who lined the sidewalks, watching from driveways or reclining in lawn chairs, appeared of mixed political views. Cries of “socialist! socialist!” mingled with chants of “feel the Bern!” and “Trump!”
One man, who declined to give his name to a reporter, insisted that his young daughter remove a Sanders sticker she had received.
“I’ll give her 100 stickers if she takes it off,” he said. “And I’ll pay for it myself with my own money I earn.”
In Ames, Iowa, home to Iowa State University, Mr. Sanders got a more robust reception as he marched down Main Street, which was dotted with American flags.
He moved rapidly through the parade, stopping to take pictures, though he clearly didn’t want to linger. “Very quickly,” he said, in response to a selfie request.