WASHINGTON — Joe Biden is keeping his name at the top of likely Democratic contenders for the 2016 presidential election — even while the prime spot seems to have been claimed by former Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton.
As a two-term sitting vice-president, Senate veteran and Democratic Party luminary, Biden in any other year would have the right of first refusal for the Democratic nomination.
This time, though, Biden’s decision and prospects are both irrefutably colored by Clinton, who a growing number of Democratic groups are hyping as President Barack Obama’s heir apparent as they seek to recruit her to join the race.
So although Biden and other Democrats are looking to Clinton before they decide how to proceed, the vice-president is signalling that nobody should count him out just yet.
With three years to go until next presidential election, Biden is polishing his connections and racking up favours in states key to winning the party’s nomination. Now 70, Biden would be one of the oldest presidential candidates in history if he decides to run.
He has a crowded schedule of campaign events to boost Democrats running in mid-term elections this November. Many of those stops are in states that will be critical in the state-by-state Democratic primary process.
Biden’s advisers and friends say those events reflect his role as vice-president and a party leader, not some grand strategy to lay the groundwork for a presidential campaign he hasn’t yet decided to undertake.
But Democratic activists and donors say the signals are all too clear when a two-time presidential candidate who is openly entertaining a third run makes the trek to early primary states.
“He’s doing the smart thing … He’s letting folks know he’s interested,” said Dick Harpootlian, who chaired the South Carolina Democratic Party until earlier this year. He described the stops as a chance to “meet all the major players in the Democratic primary process, in one room, in one night.”
That Biden is still interested in the top job is far from a secret, and in his current office, the writing is on the wall.
“I have two portraits hanging: one of (Thomas) Jefferson, one of (John) Adams. Both vice-presidents who became presidents,” Biden told GQ last month, noting the former presidents’ self-satisfied expressions.
“I joke to myself, I wonder what their portraits looked like when they were vice-presidents.”
A trip next month to Iowa to headline a major Democratic fundraiser, announced Sunday, offered the latest infusion of energy into the will-he-or-won’t-he parlour game already consuming much of the Democratic establishment.
The Iowa caucuses kick off the primary calendar, making the heartland state crucial to the nominating process.
Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin’s annual steak fry, to be held this year in mid-September, is a marquee event on the Iowa Democratic calendar and a magnet for White House hopefuls looking to curry favour with donors and party bigwigs in Iowa.
“The people who really do the work for the party and a lot of the funders that contribute, will be at the steak fry, no doubt about it,” Harkin said in an interview.
Biden’s office sought to play down the trip, telling reporters that Biden had committed previously to attending Harkin’s event, but couldn’t in 2012 as originally intended.
But the Iowa trip is the latest in a string of Biden appearances that further his ties to key primary states.
At the start of Obama’s second-term, one of a few invitations to Biden’s private swearing-in went to Maggie Hassan, the governor of New Hampshire, another state critical to the primary.
Hassan, a Democrat and outspoken Clinton supporter in 2008, would be a powerful ally for any 2016 candidate. But first, Hassan must be re-elected next year. So later in August, Biden will head to Maine to raise campaign dollars for Hassan at the home of a prominent Democratic lobbyist.
And in May, Biden flew down to South Carolina, where he gave the keynote address at a party dinner. He also appeared at a fish fry for Rep. Jim Clyburn, a member of House Democratic leadership, receiving rock-star treatment from an adoring crowd at kicking back beers as Biden riffed on voting rights and the plight of the middle class.
“As soon as I show up in South Carolina, the Washington press corps comes out and says, ’Is Biden getting ready?”’ he said that night in May, a wink to the fact that while his advisers claim he’s not trying to encourage 2016 speculation, he’s not exactly trying to discourage it, either.