WASHINGTON — Some of the younger candidates in the crowded Democratic presidential primary are suggesting that the early front-runner, 76-year-old Joe Biden , is too entrenched in the past.
Former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke , 46, and Pete Buttigieg , the 37-year old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, have stepped up questions this week about whether Biden really provides new perspectives for the direction of the country after the 2020 election.
"We cannot return to the past," O'Rourke told MSNBC on Thursday. "That cannot be who we are going forward. We've got to be bigger, we've got to be bolder."
That marks a dramatic shift for O'Rourke, who has spent months praising Biden's experience and perspective. His criticism, coming two weeks before Democrats gather for the first presidential debate of the primary, illustrates a generational divide some candidates are trying to draw in hopes of reshaping the race.
Though O'Rourke didn't mention Biden's age specifically, he said the former vice president represents a return to the past. That echoes Buttigieg, who seemed to refer to Biden during a lengthy speech Tuesday designed to bolster his foreign policy credentials.
"Democrats can no more turn the clock back to the 1990s than Republicans can return us to the 1950s," he said. "And we should not try."
Buttigieg was just shy of his eighth birthday when the 1990s began. When Biden announced his first run for president in June 1987, he was 5.
Biden has long rejected notions he's too old for the White House, especially since President Donald Trump turns 73 on Friday. He also insists he can remake the nation's politics after Trump. Biden is a seasoned political hand who arrived in the Senate in 1973. He served as President Barack Obama's vice president for eight years.
But as Biden sits at the top of most polls, questions have begun to surface about whether some of the other candidates can get noticed. Pollsters say the younger White House hopefuls could gain attention by suggesting that older, established contenders can't truly represent something new.
"Basically, most voters think Washington is either Sodom or Gomorrah, or both combined, and I think the Biden has is he's been around too long," said Brad Bannon, a Democratic pollster and consultant in Washington, who is unaffiliated with any presidential hopeful. "People are very hostile to creatures of Washington."
O'Rourke offering even mild criticism demonstrates a shift for a candidate who had previously refused to speak ill of any other Democrats seeking the White House, saying it simply wasn't in his DNA. Even appearing Wednesday night on CBS' "The Late Show with Seven Colbert," O'Rourke was asked jokingly, "If trapped on a deserted island with all 22 other candidates, which would you eat first?"
"I would die first," he said, refusing to take the bait.
Former Obama administration housing chief Julian Castro , 44, has also championed the fresh political perspective he says he can offer, telling The Associated Press while preparing his presidential run in December, "I think these times, right now, call for a new generation of leadership."
Asked about Biden, Castro's response then was much like O'Rourke and Buttigieg's now: "I think that everybody brings their strengths. But I'll tell you that what I hear out there is that people want a new generation of leadership."
The issue remains on Biden's mind, too. Pressed by reporters this week in Iowa, he said, "People have a right to question all of our ages. It's a totally legitimate thing."
"All I can say is watch me," Biden added. "Just watch me."