Democrats loyal to Vice President Biden have a three-word response to the politicians and pundits who say Hillary Clinton’s performance in Tuesday’s Democratic debate makes a Biden campaign less likely: Not so fast.
Appearing eager to tamp down talk that the window of opportunity for the vice president to launch a campaign nearly closed after the debate, loyalists are taking steps to assure potential supporters that there is still a path to the nomination, however competitive and challenging, if Biden decides to run.
The clearest evidence came in a letter e-mailed Thursday to Biden’s political support network by former Delaware senator Ted Kaufman, who said a Biden campaign would be “optimistic,” “from the heart” and “unscripted.”
“If he runs, he will run because of his burning conviction that we need to fundamentally change the balance in our economy and the political structure to restore the ability of the middle class to get ahead,” he wrote.
The Associated Press first reported the contents of the e-mail message. The Washington Post later obtained a copy.
Kaufman’s words were arguably less significant than the author behind them. The former senator — appointed to the seat after his ex-boss became vice president — is Biden’s longest serving adviser, bridging the divide between the generation of staff who worked for Biden as a senator in the 1980s and a new crop of lieutenants who came up through the past decade of the family’s public service.
More importantly, Kaufman has been frequently portrayed as the most reluctant of the trio of inner-circle aides to the vice president to launch a bid and is known to be angry at the frequent portrayals of Biden as being on the brink of announcing his candidacy. Any note from him to the alumni network is treated with more credulity than any leak to the national press corps.
The main issue, still apparently unresolved, remains whether Biden and his family feel ready for the rigors of a presidential campaign so soon after the death of his oldest son, Beau, late last spring. Nothing Biden has said publicly in recent weeks suggested an affirmative answer, but he has not addressed the issue directly since before the visit to the United States by Pope Francis last month.
According to those tracking the vice president’s deliberations, a decision could come at any time, although the only certain timetable is the one set by the deadlines for qualifying for the primary and caucus ballots around the country. Those deadlines began to take effect at the end of the month.
Outside Biden’s tight circle of advisers, many Democrats have long assumed that, beyond personal and family considerations, the biggest factor in the vice president’s decision-making involved Clinton’s political vulnerability.
A month ago, as controversy over her use of a private e-mail account while serving as secretary of state drove down her image, she appeared seriously weakened. That prompted calls from nervous Democrats, or those in the party never particularly partial to Clinton, for Biden to jump in.
Those assessments about Clinton brightened considerably after she delivered an impressive performance in Tuesday’s debate with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley and two other candidates.
Biden loyalists have tried not to be swept up by shifting assumptions about the strength or weakness of the Democratic front-runner, believing she was never as damaged as some were suggesting a month ago.
At the same time, they are not persuaded that this week’s debate fundamentally changed the race in her favor. There is outside evidence backing up that view, including strong interest in Sanders on social media and the fact that the Vermont senator raised more than $2 million in the 24 hours after the debate.
What has guided Biden advisers is their own assessment of whether there is a constituency for a Biden candidacy, the resources to run a competitive and potentially lengthy campaign and whether he has a persuasive message for Democratic primary voters. As of late this week, advisers remained convinced of the viability of all three.
Polls and other evidence suggest that if Biden were to enter, the Democratic nomination campaign would quickly become a three-way contest. Clinton would remain the favorite for now, but it’s clear that Sanders has more than enough money to continue well beyond the four earliest states — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.
Those who have been assessing fundraising capabilities for a possible Biden campaign believe he too would have the money to remain in the race past those states.
None of the first four contests appears ready to tip to Biden, although as an undeclared candidate the polls are not reliable. But some of those partial to Biden have seized on a little-remembered fact from 1992 to offer hope that early defeats need not drive a candidate out of the nomination contest.
In that campaign, Bill Clinton lost 10 of the first 11 contests, from early February through the first days of March. He then secured a string of victories in western and southern caucuses and primaries, followed by wins in Illinois and Michigan that effectively broke the back of his opponents.
Once Biden opted out of the first Democratic debate, it was clear to Biden’s team that Clinton was set up for a good night and likely a good month.
Her next major event will be an Oct. 22 appearance before the House committee investigating the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, in September 2012 and her e-mail account. That highly charged testimony has taken a turn in her direction as a result of House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) saying the committee had been formed to weaken her politically.
Immediately after that, on Oct. 24, Clinton and other Democratic candidates will speak at the Iowa Jefferson-Jackson dinner, a quadrennial proving ground for presidential hopefuls. Given the breadth of organizing Clinton’s team has done in the Hawkeye State, Biden’s advisers assume that will give her an additional boost, although Sanders will have plenty of supporters there too.
All that would suggest that Biden could delay announcing a decision until after those two events.
There were many lines in Kaufman’s letter that suggested Biden still wasn’t ready to make a decision, despite the encroaching deadlines.
Kaufman’s letter began with an equal dose of hint and caution in terms of timing, suggesting that Biden was well aware that big filing deadlines loom in the next few weeks. But Kaufman also added that he couldn’t “add much” to what has already been debated in public.
“I know in the daily ups and down of the political swirl, we all get bombarded with the tactics. So sometimes it’s good to take a step back and get real again. Let’s stay in touch,” Kaufman wrote. “If he decides to run, we will need each and every one of you – yesterday!”