PETERBOROUGH — Untethered by a teleprompter at the Peterborough Town House Sunday afternoon, former Vice President Joe Biden showed off his experience, made an effort to take as many voter questions as possible and presented himself as a steady hand to unite the country in 2020.
The full house of more than 300 was energetic, and at least two or three dozen stayed to chat with the race’s national frontrunner afterward.
Several undecided voters said they were down to picking between the former VP and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, but that Biden’s in-person performance Sunday assuaged them of fears he’d lost a step.
Biden, 77, still rolled out some of the signature trappings of a hyper-presidential presidential campaign, but made some tweaks.
For one, he spoke in the round on the floor of the Town House instead of on stage, with his advance team turning seats on the lower level to face each other as the balcony looked on from the side of the action.
He also ditched the teleprompter — which has been a fixture at many of his events for most of this cycle, including during his August visit to Keene State College — choosing instead to recount stories and carve out more time for questions from the audience.
Biden scoffed at critics who argue his focus on reaching across the aisle, making compromises and uniting the country are too nostalgic and naive going into the 2020s.
“... I go through all the things that I’ve done [by reaching across the aisle], and they said, ‘Well that was the old days, this Republican Party is different,’” Biden said. “Well it is different, but it was only three years ago.”
In an implicit critique of the more stridently progressive candidates in the race, such as U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Biden said the Democratic Party’s messaging needs to shift its focus away from assumptions about political opponents’ motives.
“If I turn to you and I say, ‘Look, I think you’re in the pocket of big business. I think you’re immoral. I think you’re this — and by the way, let’s work out a deal on how to we’re gonna deal with climate change,’” Biden said. “Fat chance!”
Biden recalled advice he was given from the late Mike Mansfield — a longtime Democratic U.S. senator from Montana who served as the majority leader from 1961 to 1977 — who told him, “Joe, it’s never appropriate to question another man or woman’s motives. It’s always appropriate to question their judgment.”
Members of the audience pitched questions at Biden for the remainder of the afternoon before he headed off to an event in Milford.
In response to a query on what he would look for in a vice presidential nominee, Biden said he would look for a dynamic similar to the one he had with Obama — “intellectually sympatico,” with differences of opinion only on tactics, not policy or philosophy.
Biden also said he’s skeptical of the notion of “balancing the ticket” — a longstanding political idiom referring to a president picking a vice-presidential nominee who comes from a certain battleground state or with complementary traits, such as age, gender, race or rhetorical style.
“The days of picking someone to balance the ticket are the days that are basically gone, because the responsibility of the president is so immense, no one woman or man can handle the job by themselves,” Biden said, adding that the president must delegate “significant responsibility” to a VP.
However, Biden noted he could think of “seven women, off the top of my head” who would be ready to be president right away, should something happen to him while in office. He also alluded to New Hampshire’s U.S. Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan being qualified for the job.
Biden shared tender moments when answering questions about health care and gun control, recalling how he lost his wife and then-1-year-old daughter in a car crash in 1972, and how the leading cause of gun deaths is suicide.
The emotion in the room only heightened when Biden took to the rope line, where he would chat with voters and take pictures. Sometimes, upon making eye contact, voters would begin to cry and share stories with the former VP about the loss of loved ones and hardships in their lives.
Others would give him a firm handshake and tell him to beat President Donald Trump.
Several of those waiting in line, including Lara Shea of Peterborough, said they came to the event trying to decide between Biden and Buttigieg.
“I think Joe Biden’s experience kind of convinces me he might be the right candidate,” Shea, a 41-year-old director of a retirement community, said. “That he can get in there on day one and not be learning the job.”
Grace Hartman, 72, of Sharon said she was impressed seeing Biden in person for the first time, and will likely vote for him over Buttigieg because she believes he will be more electable in key Electoral College states because of his name recognition and experience.
Hartman added that Biden came across as sharp and spry in-person, which she noted differed quite significantly from how he appears on television, where he has been occasionally put on the defensive during debates.
Quinn Mitchell, a Walpole 11-year-old who has met virtually every presidential candidate this cycle, had a discussion with Biden on climate change and gun control.
Biden gave the preteen politico a bottle of Coca-Cola and he signed a T-shirt Quinn brings to events, bearing the signatures of all the candidates he has met.
Putting his pundit hat on, Quinn said he was impressed with Biden’s performance, and thinks he would make a formidable ticket with U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota as his VP pick.
Coming off meeting Biden on the ropeline, retirees John and Suzanne Paul of Peterborough said they were taken with how emotional they found the experience of meeting the candidate.
Both were teary-eyed, and said meeting Biden was like reuniting with a family member.
“I told [Biden] I got the same warm feeling today that I did when Barack Obama was elected,” Suzanne said.