FORT MADISON, Iowa ― Carol Foss said she hadn’t made up her mind which Democrat she liked best when she arrived at a Joe Biden campaign event here on Friday.
Biden made a strong impression, both during his speech and after.
“He gave me a kiss on the cheek and I’ll never wash that cheek again,” Foss said, adding with a laugh that the moment made her feel “really nice and warm and fuzzy.”
Biden’s penchant for physically touching people in close encounters has been controversial. Former Nevada state Assemblywoman Lucy Flores, for instance, wrote last year the former vice president made her feel “uneasy, gross, and confused” when he rubbed her shoulders and kissed her head in 2014.
In a video response, Biden tried to explain that in his long political career, he has always shaken hands and touched people, but he acknowledged that “social norms are changing” and he would be more mindful of people’s space.
Biden’s campaign events, however, are designed for touching. At small gatherings in Ottumwa, Fort Madison and Mount Pleasant over the past two days, Biden has given a 30-minute stump speech followed by at least as many minutes of hands-on greeting time. Attendees, who tend to be older, line up for handshakes, hugs, selfies, kisses and the occasional poke in the chest.
And they seem to love it. Three people who said they were previously undecided told HuffPost they became Biden supporters. One woman wept as Biden used her phone to talk to her convalescent son back home.
Following his speech in Fort Madison, Foss, an 84-year-old former travel agent, said she told Biden that she would pray for him. He responded by clasping her hands and showing her how he prays on his fingers. Then he kissed her on the cheek.
Afterward, Foss said she’d support Biden on Monday in the Iowa caucuses, the crucial first event of the up-for-grabs Democratic presidential nomination. She appreciates his experience in the White House and on the world stage.
“He’s just a very down-to-earth man and he’s had some problems in his own life, so he has a lot of empathy for people,” Foss said. (She denied that the kiss itself sealed the deal.)
Biden’s empathy is a trait his campaign emphasizes, drawing a sharp contrast with President Donald Trump, who revels in cruelty. The candidate and his surrogates talk about the personal loss Biden suffered as a senator, when his wife and daughter died in a car accident, and as vice president, when one of his sons died of brain cancer.
“It’s important for the president to have suffered,” Christie Vilsack, the former first lady of Iowa, said Friday evening at a Biden event in Mount Pleasant. Part of the president’s job, she said, is to help the nation cope with tragedy.
Biden’s personal touch also contrasts with the style of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), his top rival at the moment, who tends to leave events quickly without hugging tons of people.
After his speech at an American Legion post in Ottumwa on Thursday, Biden met Melinda Jones, a 36-year-old schoolteacher who came to the event undecided, and her 7-year-old daughter. Jones had previously supported Cory Booker, who dropped out of the race last month.
Biden bent down and asked Jones’ daughter how she was doing and said it was great to see her. He asked her name and age, and then Jones told Biden that she’d previously supported Booker, but that she now would likely go for Biden. He thanked her before they hugged and took pictures.
“When you speak to him, he is really looking at you and engaged with your conversation,” Jones said.
In Mount Pleasant on Friday, Seth Dickson, a 26-year-old Trump supporter from Galesburg, Illinois, infiltrated Biden’s greeting line. He asked Biden why as vice president he’d pushed Ukraine to fire a prosecutor, an act that Republicans have falsely said Biden did to benefit himself.
Biden poked Dickson in the chest, saying “the guy was a cheat” as campaign staff asked Dickson to leave, which he did, smiling. The incident escaped the notice of reporters, likely because the campaign plays loud music during meet-and-greet time, making it difficult to hear Biden’s conversations.
In other words, it looked like Biden was just poking another guy in the chest.
“It’s whatever,” Dickson said of the poke. “This guy has no clue what he’s doing.”
In Fort Madison, Ann Cahoon, 62, said she has long appreciated the way Biden tells the story of losing his son, and she said it’s given her strength. Her 37-year-old son also had brain cancer.
She talked to Biden after his speech and told him that a December surgery to remove her son’s cancer had been successful. Biden wanted to talk to him, but he wasn’t there.
“He said, ‘Call him on the phone,’” Cahoon said. Biden then talked to her son for more than a minute while Cahoon looked on, her eyes red with tears.
“It kind of makes you feel like you matter,” she said.