Former Vice President Joe Biden shakes hands with one of his supporters Nov. 1, 2019, before the Democratic Party Liberty and Justice Dinner in Des Moines, Iowa.

Former Vice President Joe Biden shakes hands with one of his supporters Nov. 1, 2019, before the Democratic Party Liberty and Justice Dinner in Des Moines, Iowa. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

DENISON, Iowa - Joe Biden is working to breathe new life into his campaign in Iowa, a state where he's struggled to keep up with his competitors' organizations and popularity despite leading the crowded 2020 field of Democrats in most national polls.

Biden kicked off an eight-day bus tour this weekend that focuses on rural areas. He's traveling with Tom Vilsack, a former Iowa governor and agriculture secretary under President Barack Obama, and Vilsack's wife, Christie.

Aides and allies see Biden's trip as an opportunity to shift to a new phase of Iowa campaigning - not as intense as it will be during the final rush before the Feb. 3 caucus, but more focused, particularly in rural areas that get little attention from most candidates. Biden's team believes he can attract at least 15% of the support of caucus-goers in each of the state's 1,679 precincts, the threshold for earning delegates toward the Democratic nomination.

"We're going to go to 18 counties, on a 660-mile trip across the state, and we're going to touch on what we think is a forgotten part of most campaigns - the rural part of your state, rural America," Biden said Saturday in Council Bluffs, the first stop of the 8-day bus tour.

Sitting down to breakfast on Sunday with the Vilsacks at Queen Beans Coffee House in Carroll, population about 9,800, Biden said he wants the tour to remind Iowans why he continues to lead in national polls.

"We're here to translate the polls nationally to here," he said. "Look, I feel good about Iowa and the fact is that my impression - and the Vilsacks have forgotten more about this than I'll ever know but I know a little about it - is that Iowans make up their minds late. And they change. The front-runner ends up getting behind and the front-runner comes back."

For months, Biden's campaign has been dogged by criticism among supporters and critics alike that his Iowa operation was slow to get off the ground. Given the nature of the caucuses, where voters choose the nominee by gathering in public spaces like school gymnasiums, churches and community centers for one night in February, a robust organization that encourages people to participate is critical to success.

While even his own campaign manager, Greg Schultz, has said he can become the Democratic nominee without winning Iowa, Biden set his ambitions higher.

"I'm running to win. I'm not running to lose. I'm not running to come in third or fourth or fifth or anything like that. So I feel good about it. And, you know, having Vilsack doesn't hurt at all."

But even during the eight days billed as a declaration of his devotion to the state, Biden's taking two side trips that reflect the competing demands for his time. He's leaving Iowa on Monday afternoon to raise money in Chicago, returning on Tuesday morning for a singleorganizing event in Mason City, and then flying to fund-raisers in New York before returning to Iowa on Wednesday afternoon. Hosts for his New York events include Arne Glimcher, an art dealer who founded the Pace Gallery in Manhattan, and Alan Patricof, co-founder of Greycroft Partners LLC, a venture capital firm.

Biden's bus tour message is centered on President Donald Trump and makes few allusions to the other Democrats in the race. The "No Malarkey" theme - emblazoned on the side of Biden's tour bus - nods at both the candidate's reputation for truth-telling and Trump's supposed aversion to it. "The other guy's all lies, so we want to make sure there's a contrast," Biden said at one stop.

As he stops in small towns, he's sure to allude to rural values and rural needs and to mention that he's secured the support of Vilsack, the popular two-term governor, who urged Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign to spend more time in rural areas.

"With all due respect to folks who talk about bold, new ideas, the reality is, you're going to have an incredibly difficult time until the country comes together," Vilsack told Bloomberg news in an interview in November.

Aware of the split in the Democratic field between moderates and progressives, Vilsack said Biden is best positioned to enact progressive change because he is a unifier who can win the necessary swing states.

"The vice president is speaking to a much broader audience than some of the other candidates. I think he's speaking to the audience that any Democrat is going to have to speak to consistently through this campaign in order to have the people who will decide this election in Pennsylvania and Michigan and Iowa and Wisconsin basically saying, 'Yeah this guy has been consistent throughout,'" said Vilsack.

For rural voters, the campaign's investment is being noticed.

"He's definitely well-organized," Jared Beymer, the 25-year-old mayor of Denison, population about 8,300, said of Biden's campaign in northwest Iowa. Having a field office in Carroll, 30 miles east, shows that Biden's team is taking this part of the state seriously, Beymer said.

Beymer, whose term ends this month, said he's met with half a dozen campaigns interested in an endorsement. He said he'll endorse before the caucus if a candidate captures his attention and is especially interested in Andrew Yang "because he's talking about things that nobody else is."

But local ties could pull him to Biden, whom Beymer said he's considering only because Biden was able to attract his close friend, Denison native Robert Lyons, to be a field organizer. Lyons is the only local working in that capacity, Beymer said, "The people I've met from other campaigns are all from Kentucky or something."

Lyons also persuaded Kendall Von Glan, 68, to spend a rainy Saturday night hearing from Biden in Denison. "We just need a leader," said Von Glan, a farmer and registered Republican who's considering Democrats, including Biden, in part because "there are a number of things that are disturbing" about Trump.

Introducing the former vice president on Saturday night in Denison, Christie Vilsack, the former governor's wife, vouched for Biden, who she's known for three decades. "His values were rock-solid then and they're rock-solid now," she said.

Tom Vilsack spoke after Biden, pushing to seal the deal.

"We need your help," he said, asking the crowd to commit to caucus for Biden, to volunteer, or to agree to be a precinct captain.

Vilsack's support of Biden "makes a big difference to me because he was governor and well-liked. I'm a farmer, he was secretary of agriculture," Von Glan said. "When he speaks out, yeah, I listen."

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