‘Why are you so hooked on that?’ Joe Biden asked a reporter in Iowa Thursday. She’d asked him to label President Donald Trump a white supremacist. ‘You want me to say the words so I sound like everybody else. I’m not everybody else. I’m Joe Biden.’

‘I’ve always been who I am,’ the former vice president said. ‘It’s like everybody wants everybody to call someone a liar. And then you say – “I don’t call people liars.” I say they don’t tell the truth. You want me to say “liar” so you can put it out and you can say “Biden called someone a liar.” That’s not who I am. You got the wrong guy.’

Of course, this prompted howls of indignation on social media. Biden must be senile, progressives said, not just because he’s talking about himself in the third person. He refuses to ‘call out’ the president’s glaring racism.

But Biden’s reply exhibited more savvy than  any of the other candidates have shown this week. It underlined Biden’s confidence — he won’t just go along with the day’s anti-Trump talking point. He can think for himself and he believes in himself. He’s running as Joe Biden: not the anti-Trump candidate.

Like the previous Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, he has a decades-long, relatively centrist curriculum vitae. For sure, he’s pared back positions here and there, but Biden as Democratic front-runner has more consistently refused to apologize for who he is.

But Clinton had disadvantages the former VP does not have: she was a female candidate in a country where sexism still counts, she ran in a worse-off economy, and there was fatigue from eight years of Democrats. Biden is gambling that the party which won the popular vote and was 70,000 votes from the presidency does not need dramatic change to win. With increasing persuasiveness, he’s making the argument that he’s the man to pull the left over the finish line.

He’s not hysterical, at a time when the most off-putting aspect of his party is its hysteria about the man in the Oval Office. By refusing to call the president a ‘white supremacist,’ Biden is showing his shrewd instincts. Clinton notoriously labeled Trump’s people ‘deplorables.’ Biden knows that many of the ‘deplorable’ people who put Trump in the White House — in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio — voted for the first black president twice. He will not win them back by telling them they elected a Nazi.

If Team Trump thinks Biden is a redux of Jeb Bush or Clinton, they’re in for a nasty surprise.