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Joe Biden walked onto the stage during last week's NAACP candidate forum in Detroit and said, to paraphrase, "You know me. I'm Joe. I was with Barack."

That was enough for the largely African American convention audience, which rose to its feet as soon as the former vice president popped from behind the curtain and stayed standing for his entire low-key presentation.

In an overflowing field of candidates with light resumes and spotty name recognition, familiarity breeds contentment.

Biden is well out in front in the early Democratic primary campaigning not because he's offering a portfolio of plans, like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, or promising a revolution, like Sen. Bernie Sanders, or appealing to a new generation of voters, like Pete Buttigieg and Beto O'Rourke. He's enjoying a 2-to-1 lead in the race because voters know who he is, and are comfortable with what they know.

So how does he stay on top when he comes to Detroit this week for two nights of Democratic debates, and what must the other 19 candidates do to take him down? 

The challenge for Biden is to more deftly defend his record. Sen. Kamala Harris rocked him in Florida by punching at his votes as a senator on school busing and the crime bill.

"The central question is can he turn his record into an asset?" says pollster Richard Czuba of the Glengariff Group. "Do we see the old Joe Biden in Detroit, the one who was prepared and feisty and charming on the stage?"

Democratic strategist Howard Edelson attributes Biden's lead to his being a moderate, and that he's prepared to be president on Day One. In Detroit, he says, "Biden has to demonstrate he has the energy and fight in him. And he can’t be pulled too far to the left. That’s why he’s staking out an important position on health care, saying let's fix Obamacare, while the rest of the candidates are saying Medicare for all."

Edelson and Czuba agree that Biden owns the moderate space in the Democratic race, and there's no room for another candidate to compete there.

"A lot of candidates are working the left side of the party," Czuba says. "That helps Biden. They’re leaving him with the more moderate and older voters, who are going to decide the nomination."

The challenge for the other 19 this week is not only knocking down Biden, but knocking out the other progressive contenders.

"To beat Biden, you have to see a consolidation of progressive candidates," Edelson says. "They’re going to have to go after each other. Combined, the progressives have the majority of the vote. The fewer progressives in the race, the better chance of getting a progressive nominated."

Still, Biden can expect to be the bullseye of the Detroit debates. His performance in Miami left him vulnerable. But don't expect a knock-out blow.

"No single issue will cut Joe Biden down," Czuba says. "People know him too well. The way to weaken Biden is death by 1,000 cuts."

That cutting will resume in earnest Tuesday and Wednesday nights at the Fox Theatre.

nfinley@detroitnews.com 

Catch “The Nolan Finley Show” weekdays 7-9 a.m. on 910 AM Superstation.

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