Joe Biden summoned more than 200 Democratic insiders to the vice presidential residence Sunday night to chat about the 2012 triumph -- but many walked away convinced his rising 2016 ambitions were the real intent of the long, intimate night.
"I took a look at who was there," said longtime New Hampshire state Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, "and said to myself, 'There's no question he's thinking about the future.' "
He's right. Biden, according to a number of advisers and Democrats who have spoken to him in recent months, wants to run, or at least be well positioned to run, if and when he decides to pull the trigger. Biden has expressed a clear sense of urgency, convinced the Democratic field will be defined quickly -- and that it might very well come down to a private chat with Hillary Clinton about who should finish what Barack Obama started.
"He's intoxicated by the idea, and it's impossible not to be intoxicated by the idea," said a Democrat close to the White House. And the intoxication is hardly new. Officials working on the Obama-Biden campaign last year were struck by how the vice president always seemed to have one eye on a run, including aggressively courting the president's donors. Obama aides at times had to actively steer Biden to places where he was needed -- like Pennsylvania -- because he kept asking to be deployed to Iowa, New Hampshire and other early states.
"He wasn't just doing fundraising the campaign assigned to him," said a campaign adviser. "He was inviting people to the mansion to hang out and have dinner."Biden was way more into the donors than Obama was. "He embraced it with a tirelessness and a gusto that even the president didn't," another campaign official said.
There are a number of reasons Biden might take a pass. To be blunt, he's old. Biden is 70 now and would be 74 if he ran and won. He's also old news in politics. The guy has been in Washington for almost two generations and hardly signals freshness or political vitality. He's also run for president twice before and didn't miss by inches either time; he bombed.
More importantly, Joe Biden is not Hillary. She is a rock star with higher favorable ratings and the capacity to clear the field if she goes all-in. She is also a she -- and Democrats are eager to elect the first women after electing the first African-American.
"Things are frozen in place until she makes a decision," said Iowa Democratic Party Chairwoman Sue Dvorsky of Clinton. Dvorsky spent time with Biden this past weekend and praised his personal touch.
A Democrat close to both Biden and Clinton said it is extremely unlikely that they would challenge each other. "They're both going to build up teams and see how it goes," the Democrat said. "One of them will fade away, as it becomes more obvious which one of them should be the standard-bearer for the Obama legacy. I can't see them both announcing for president. But both of them will have teams that try to get to that."
Here's a little intrigue that only Obama knows the answer to: Will the president really want a Clinton to replace him after spending eight years redirecting the party away from the centrism of Bill Clinton? After all, it was Clinton who declared the era of Big Government is over. And it was Obama, in his second inaugural speech, who declared it very much back on.
"Obama would rather be succeeded by a Biden type than a Clinton type," a prominent Democrat told us. But the same Democrat went on to say that if Hillary Clinton were running, she would be running on the Obama legacy, not her husband's.
Biden, in many ways, is better positioned than anyone to carry out the liberal manifesto Obama detailed in his speech Monday. It was Biden who ticked off White House officials by blurting out support for gay marriage before Obama did -- and Biden who put the gun control package together after the killings in Connecticut.
"Primary voters look at this administration and say Biden has been leading from behind," said one Democratic adviser. "On gay marriage, and whatever success they have with guns, he has carried the liberal agenda, in some ways, more forcefully than the president has. And that matters to primary voters."
The adviser added: "When he speaks to gay audiences, he's seen as the hero. And he only becomes more heroic as the president embraces what they give Biden credit for pushing the president toward."
But Biden's greatest asset is his love of the game -- and the people who play it. And he has worked the game and the people a lot this past week.
He seemed ubiquitous over the long inaugural weekend: popping into the State Society of Iowa's big Saturday night party, staging his own swearing-in shindig Sunday morning and inviting New Hampshire's new governor, Maggie Hassan, and meeting privately Tuesday with members of the Democratic National Committee.
Biden's most revealing move may have been to hold a little-discussed Sunday night party at the vice president's mansion. He invited about 200 Democratic insiders over to his home and the guest list included some of the most influential figures in national and early-state Democratic politics.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Florida Sen. Bill Nelson , former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards, NAACP head Ben Jealous, Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy and Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory all were in attendance.
But what really raised eyebrows among the attendees were just how many Democrats from the traditional first nominating states made the trek to the Naval Observatory.
There were big names such as South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, the third-ranking House Democrat and a Palmetto State powerhouse, but also lesser-known activists.
In addition to D'Allesandro, New Hampshire was represented by Jim Demers, a lobbyist and early Obama supporter, state Sen. Martha Fuller Clark, former Rep. Paul Hodes, former state party chairman Ned Helms, state party executive director turned state House aide Ryan Mahoney and longtime Biden friend Mary Carey Foley. The Democratic leader of the Iowa Senate, Mike Gronstal, was there along with state House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and Dvorsky and her husband, state Sen. Robert Dvorsky. A group of activists also attended, including old Biden friends from his past campaigns such as Cedar Rapids lawyer Sara Riley.
"People are reading too much into this weekend. The main focus was on people/states who helped us this year -- they also happen to be players in 2016," a top Biden adviser cautioned, adding that Biden also met with Floridians, Greeks and labor leaders. "The usual Biden folks."
Trip King, a Biden loyalist and aide from his 2008 campaign, has helped nurture many of these relationships and extended the invitations to the get-together just as he sat with some of the same early-state Democrats in the vice president's suite at the Democratic National Convention last summer in Charlotte, N.C.
Biden didn't raise 2016 on Sunday, but he got a dose of encouragement. Riley said she told Biden that, when he gives the word, "we're ready to help."
"He smiled and gave me a hug and said thanks," said Riley, adding that she expects the vice president to run and be formidable.
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