Biden's biggest debate challenge — and opportunity: From the Politics Desk

Welcome to the online version of From the Politics Desk, an evening newsletter that brings you the NBC News Politics team’s latest reporting and analysis from the campaign trail, the White House and Capitol Hill.

In today’s edition, senior political editor Mark Murray explains why President Joe Biden’s campaign is in a fighting mood ahead of the debate. Plus, we take a deep dive into a key Democratic House primary in New York, where the Israel-Hamas war has been a major focus.

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Biden’s biggest challenge — and opportunity — on debate night

By Mark Murray

President Joe Biden’s campaign is in a fighting mood ahead of Thursday’s presidential debate.

On “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Mitch Landrieu, the Biden campaign’s national co-chair, used the words “fight” or “fighting” 11 times when he was discussing the president and the upcoming debate.

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Vice President Kamala Harris also said those words repeatedly in her interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that aired Monday: “I think that the debate is going to make clear the contrast between our president, the current president who works on behalf of the American people, fights for the American people, and the former president, who pretty much spent full-time fighting for himself.”

And this is the latest TV ad the Biden campaign has been airing in battleground states: “This election is between a convicted criminal who’s only out for himself, and a president who’s fighting for your family.”

There’s a good reason why this term is on Team Biden’s mind: Perceptions about the president’s strength and toughness are arguably his biggest liability heading into November’s election.

Just 28% of voters nationally described Biden as being “tough” in a recent CBS News/YouGov poll, compared with 66% who said the same of Donald Trump.

What’s more, 43% of voters said Biden was better described as being a “strong leader,” compared with 53% who said that about Trump, according to a national Fox News poll.

This is maybe the best explanation of why voters — right now — see an age/fitness difference between the 81-year-old Biden and 78-year-old Trump: One candidate is perceived as being strong and tough, while the other isn’t.

And Thursday’s debate presents Biden with an opportunity to counter this perception, which is why his allies are focused on “fighting.”

“So this is a really clear choice,” Landrieu said on “Meet the Press.” “You can have a great guy that’s got great character, great judgment, great wisdom, that fights for the American people. Or you can have a guy that thinks about himself and just wants to hurt everybody who’s not for him.”

But does the country see that fight from Biden at the debate? That might be the biggest question to answer after Thursday night’s showdown.

A ‘Squad’ member’s primary exposes deep Democratic divisions

By Ali Vitali, Scott Wong and Nnamdi Egwuonwu

MOUNT VERNON, N.Y. — Bernie Sanders has lined up on one side of the race, Hillary Clinton on the other. A Democratic House primary in New York is in many ways a redux of the 2016 presidential primary — with much of the familiar vitriol.

Tuesday’s election between progressive Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., and centrist challenger George Latimer — which has attracted the most ad spending of any House primary in history — has re-exposed fault lines from that bitterly fought race eight years ago and highlighted the gaping divide in the Democratic Party over the Israel-Hamas war.

Bowman, one of the fiercest critics of Israel in Congress, is fighting for his political life as he tries to fend off an onslaught of attack ads and win a third term. The United Democracy Project, a super PAC tied to the powerful pro-Israel American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), alone has poured nearly $15 million into ads to oust Bowman and elect Latimer, the Westchester County executive who has spent more than three decades in local politics.

That spending comes in a diverse district north of Manhattan that mixes urban and suburban areas and is home to one of the most significant Jewish American populations in the country.

As they criss-crossed New York’s 16th District in the final stretch of the race, Bowman and Latimer acknowledged that the Israel-Hamas war and record spending have made this a national race.

“Do you want to send an educator back to Congress who spent his entire life serving children and families and babies in our community and uplifting the working class?” Bowman, a former middle school principal in the Bronx, told NBC News. “Or do you want a career politician who is funded by right-wing Republican billionaires, literally buying our democracy? The choice is crystal clear.”

Latimer has also sought to strike clear contrast, both in substance and tone, describing himself at one point as more “diplomatic” at a Monday campaign stop.

Bucking Bowman’s allegation that his potential success Tuesday would be due to AIPAC’s involvement, Latimer told reporters at an event with Black faith leaders: “We had some internal polling data before a dime was spent on this race and the initial positive-negative comparisons that I had and the incumbent … had me ahead at the outset. So if anybody says, ‘Oh, you spent this much money, that’s why you won,’ that wouldn’t be accurate. We were ahead at the very outset.”

“He said, ‘I wanna give you a choice, I want to give you something different,’” Latimer told NBC News on Monday, referencing Bowman’s 2020 challenge to longtime Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel. “So I don’t see why my stepping forward is any different now.”

Read more ahead of Tuesday’s primary →

That’s all from the Politics Desk for now. If you have feedback — likes or dislikes — email us at

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