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Joe Biden: Always the understudy, never the lead

Joe Biden returns to Iowa, prompting fresh speculation about whether he will follow through on his flirtations with another presidential run in 2016.
Vice-President Joe Biden attends an event on Feb 6, 2014 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Olivier Douliery/Pool/Getty)
Vice-President Joe Biden attends an event on Feb 6, 2014 in Washington, D.C.

Vice President Joe Biden returns to the early presidential state of Iowa Thursday for two White House appearances on the economy, prompting fresh speculation about whether Biden will follow through on his flirtations with another presidential run in 2016.

Biden would very much like to be president. And he's as qualified for the job as anyone who has ever run — he has served eight years as vice president, 36 years in the Senate, is a former chairman of both the Foreign Affairs and Judiciary Committee, as well as a two-time presidential candidate.

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But Democrats familiar with Biden’s thinking say the vice president is increasingly realizing that 2016 is not his time. Lately, Biden has been telling allies how much he looks forward to reprising his role from the 2012 presidential race — when he was an attack dog against the GOP ticket — which suggests that he's starting to think less about himself as the party’s nominee.

At 72, Biden is five years older than Hillary Clinton, who would tie Ronald Reagan as the oldest president in history if elected. He's also white and male at a time when the party is hemorrhaging support among white men and dependent on massive turnout from minorities and women to win elections. Many are also eager to make history again by electing the first woman for the job.

But even if he decides not to run, Biden still has an important role to play in 2016 — insurance. Democrats have a thin bench, and with all of the party’s eggs in Clinton’s basket, Biden may have to reprise his role as understudy. In case disaster strikes, the vice president would be a ready, consensus replacement.

The most recent poll of the 2016 Democratic field, which comes from Fox News, found that Biden is Democrats’ leading second-choice candidate, even edging out Hillary Clinton for the tier-two spot. And in a field without Clinton, Biden would start with a strong lead at 37% support. Sen. Elizabeth Warren came in second at 21% and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in third with 14%. Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley and Jim Webb are in the single digits.

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“I just had a birthday. Everybody was saying, God,” Biden said during a speech last month at the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington. Poking fun at his age, the vice president said he identifies with Satchel Paige, the black baseball player who didn’t make it to the big leagues until he was 45.

“[Paige] probably would have the been the greatest pitcher in history had he been able to pitch in the big leagues before segregation was ended,” the vice president said. For Biden, was who was one of the youngest senators elected in U.S. history, it was not segregation but a plagiarism scandal during his first presidential run that held him back.

Biden keeps in touch with friends in Iowa he made during his 2008 run, and alerted them that he was coming to town this week, even though it’s not technically a political event. He’s also kept in touch with Democrats in South Carolina, where he vacations, another early presidential state.

Biden wanted to be prepared for a possibility that Clinton might not to run. But as it becomes increasingly clear that Clinton is running, he may have to spend another election cycle as understudy.

“Welcome to the White House. My name is Joe Biden. I work for President Obama,” Biden told the mayors when they visited his boss’s house. “Best job I ever had.”