Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn
Democratic presidential candidate Dean Phillips says that Joe Biden is “in decline.” Charles Krupa/AP

Dean Phillips and Nikki Haley Would Like to Remind You They Are (Relatively) Young

Ahead of the New Hampshire primary, the candidates are focusing their criticism on the mental fitness of Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

NASHUA, N.H. — Dean Phillips and Nikki Haley both celebrated their birthdays on Saturday in New Hampshire, where the two are engaged in long-shot bids for the presidency against opponents who are battering them in the polls. And both of them have turned their focus to a specific line of attack as the New Hampshire primaries — a make-or-break for each — creep closer.

Joe Biden and Donald Trump are old and not mentally fit for another term in the presidency, Phillips and Haley argued at separate events and media appearances this weekend.

“We all know Joe Biden is a good man,” Phillips, a Democratic congressman from Minnesota, said at an event at a senior center in Nashua on Saturday. “I respect him, but he should have passed the torch. He should not be running again. His age, yes, his state of life, he’s in decline.”

“Don’t be Ruth Bader Ginsburg and stay around a little too long and ruin your whole legacy,” he said at an event in Hampton on Sunday, referring to the late justice who died at age 87 while still serving on the Supreme Court.

Former South Carolina Gov. Haley, meanwhile, continually brought up Trump’s mental fitness for the job. She pointed specifically to a campaign rally on Friday in which Trump repeatedly seemed to confuse Haley with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

“I’m not saying anything derogatory, but when you’re dealing with the pressures of a presidency, we can’t have someone else that we question whether they’re mentally fit to do this,” she said during her rally in Keene on Saturday.

The following day, she called Trump’s apparent mix-up “a warning sign” on CBS News’ “Face the Nation.”

And she hasn’t left Biden out of the criticism. “Do we really want to have two presidential candidates in their 80s?” Haley said Sunday in Derry.

The candidates’ sharpened attacks over age come as each faces tough odds in their respective primaries, even though they reflect a very real concern from some voters over the front-runners. Biden and Trump each set a record for the oldest president when they took office; Biden is now 81, while Trump is 77.

Phillips turned 55 on Jan. 20 — he quipped to a crowd that he’ll be celebrating his inauguration on his next birthday — and Haley turned 52.

Phillips noted his shared birthday with Haley during his Saturday speech in Nashua. He wished her a happy birthday and said that both of them believe that this is a change election and that they are looking forward to the future, not the past.

Nikki Haley
Nikki Haley celebrated her birthday on Saturday. Robert F. Bukaty/AP

Phillips compared how Republicans speak about Trump in private versus in public to how Democrats criticize Biden behind closed doors.

“This is a battle for the soul of the country that President Biden ostensibly said he would try to fight, but he cannot win,” Phillips said in Concord on Friday. “I saw my colleagues lie saying privately ‘We all know that’ but publicly something totally different.”

The congressman predicted that Biden would lose to Trump if they face a rematch in the general election, as they almost certainly will.

His comments were a hit with at least some voters, who can choose between Phillips and 20 other listed candidates on Tuesday on the Democratic ballot or write in Biden.

“Phillips has the kindness of Joe Biden but the stamina of a younger man, which is really what we need,” said Barbara Young, a Manchester resident who attended Phillips’ Saturday event in Nashua. “Biden has been a great president but he is better as a bridge to new and younger candidates.”

Greg McKenzie liked what he heard from Phillips at the rally and said he would vote for him over Biden in the primary. While McKenzie was open to supporting Biden in the general election over Trump, if the race came down to Biden and Haley, he said he would cross party lines to vote for Haley because she seemed “normal and young.”

Nancy Wife, who is leaning toward Phillips, told NOTUS after his event that she was concerned about Biden’s age.

“I am an old person myself and there are many old people in government I am concerned about,” she said. “It is a concern for me. And maybe not so much age because there are people who are 95 who seem fine with everything they are doing whereas Biden does seem somewhat…,” she added, trailing off.

The Biden campaign did not respond to a request for comment, but the president and his allies have argued he remains sharp and engaged despite his age. First Lady Jill Biden recently said “his age is an asset,” while Biden’s principal deputy campaign manager Quentin Fulks argued that “age equals wisdom equals results and experience.”

Trump, who frequently calls Biden mentally unfit for the job, has insisted his own cognitive ability is top-notch. “A few months ago I took a cognitive test my doctor gave me ... and I aced it,” he said during a rally on Saturday.

And his voters seem to agree. A Trump supporter named Terry, who declined to give her last name, laughed when asked about Haley criticizing the former president for his mental fitness.

“You need to hear the entire speech, not just clips and cuts that are perverted by whoever cares,” she said of Trump outside his rally in Manchester on Saturday night. “Listen to the whole thing.”

Ryan Hernández is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.