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Joe Biden's long path to woke 2020

(CNN) Leave it to Joe Biden to trip -- and then trip again -- as he tries to navigate what might be called the woke era of the Democratic Party.

A new Quinnipiac poll shows him leading the Democratic field, with 29% of Democrats saying they will back him if he runs. According to the poll, almost half of Democrats want a progressive candidate, while 44% want a moderate candidate.

Over the last days (Uncle Joe's will-he-or-won't-he-run-for-president phase), Biden has said he is (would be!) the most progressive person running.

Then there was a series of comments seemingly aimed at pounding that home: Look, Stacey Abrams! Also, what a shame about what happened to Anita Hill. And, isn't white male culture terrible?

Somehow, with one appearance, Biden both undercorrected and overcorrected on his journey toward 2020 wokeness -- but these events, and a look at his polling numbers, shine light on just what he's saying and why he might be saying it.

Undercorrection?

The Anita Hill refrain isn't new -- Biden has been making similar statements for the last few years about the hearings -- and none of those statements have included how he apologized to Hill or a recognition of what critics say he got wrong at the time. That was the undercorrection, sparking lots of criticism for Biden on an issue that could be addressed fairly easy.

But, for Biden, wokeness isn't easy. Parts of his career will be re-vetted through a 2020 lens, which is much different than when he ran in 2008 and vastly different than his first bid in 1988.

He does have a record suggesting that he has at least been woke adjacent. He was the vice president to America's first black president and is at ease in front of black audiences. (See his 2012 comments about how Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan's economic policy would "put y'all back in chains.") And on gender, he authored the 1994 Violence Against Women's Act and was the Obama administration's point person on efforts to combat sexual assault on campuses.

The conventional wisdom is that he will do well with key Democratic constituencies, so, if it ain't broke, why try to fix it. But he does try to fix it.

Overcorrection?

In talking about violence against women, at a recent event that honored students activists engaged in the same kind of work, Biden said: "We all have an obligation to do nothing less than change the culture in this country."

"This is English jurisprudential culture, a white man's culture. It's got to change," Biden said at a Tuesday night event at the Russian Tea Room in New York City, hosted by the Biden Foundation and "It's On Us."

White man's culture. It's got to change. Biden 2020.

This comment will leave a mark (toxic masculinity might have been a better framing). It is ready-made for Fox News and other conservative media, which have already pushed the idea that white men are under assault and that Democrats are particularly hostile to white men.

The statement will also undermine one of his key selling points, which is that he has a unique appeal to white, working-class Midwest voters who feel alienated by the Democratic Party's progressive shift on racial and gender issues.

And it doesn't gain him, much, either.

Joan Walsh, national affairs correspondent for The Nation and a CNN political analyst, offered up this reaction to Biden's "white man culture" remark.

"I have an idea for how he can change it -- don't run," Walsh said. "Come out and support a woman. There's six women in the race, four female senators. If you want to change it, that's a way to change it. You know, I admire Joe Biden. I am a fond Democrat. He was a great vice president. But you want to change it? Don't run."

Strong polling

Biden's strong poll numbers certainly suggest there is a lane and appetite for his candidacy. What the numbers don't show is what kind of candidate voters want Biden to be. Like Obama, he has been a conservative on racial issues -- see his 1994 crime bill, a law that dogged Hillary Clinton in 2016 and will similarly dog him. Clinton had to do a mea culpa speech on the bill her husband signed into law, whereas Biden seems less inclined to do so.

And his praise of Republicans suggests he has no plans to kowtow to the constituency that ushered in one the most diverse Congresses in history. But, then, his remark that white men needing to change their ways, suggests he wants a piece of that constituency in the worst way. (If a candidate of color or a woman had said what Biden said, imagine the reaction).

Taken together, his performances suggest that a Biden run would be ripe with gaffes and misstatements on issues of race and gender in a field filled with candidates who have much more practice and better records and rhetoric. And even a Stacey Abrams trial balloon can't save him from that reality.

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