Joe Biden to run in 2004?

March 23, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, whose bid for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination was short-circuited by ethical questions, is scheduled to hop on an early morning plane to Manchester, N.H., Sunday to speak at a brunch and march in a belated St. Patrick's Day parade.

As an Irish-American in good standing, Mr. Biden's participation in a St. Paddy's parade would cause no uplifted eyebrows anywhere but in New Hampshire, home of the first presidential primary, where no national politician can set foot without fanning speculation of White House aspirations. And so it is as Mr. Biden goes to the Granite State three years before the next presidential election.

It is all the more interesting because he is to speak before the Manchester City Democrats under the auspices of state Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, one of his 1988 backers until Mr. Biden dropped out of the race, long before the New Hampshire primary. For all of Mr. Biden's problems then, as ranking Democrat and former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and one of the party's best speakers, he remains on the early short list of prospective 2004 presidential candidates.

Mr. Biden says he is focusing only on re-election to the Senate next year, but he acknowledges that a dozen years after this first White House try, he does think about running again. At 58, he has been a U.S. senator for 28 years and, adviser Ted Kaufman says, "you can't be in the Senate that long and not have strong feelings that he has answers" to a lot of the major problems facing the country.

As for the problems Mr. Biden encountered in his first presidential bid, they have probably faded from the memories of many voters, as well as having been put in perspective in the aftermath of the more blatant ethical violations of the Bill Clinton years.

In 1987, Mr. Biden withdrew from the presidential race after allegations he had plagiarized a speech of British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock and had misrepresented his grades in law school. It turned out that an aide to rival candidate Michael Dukakis had been involved in circulating the first charge, generating some sympathy for Mr. Biden. He says now he knows that if he should run for president again, he will have to have "a no-foul standard."

Mr. Biden's presidential dreams were believed to have been shattered for all time the next year, when he suffered two aneurysms that nearly cost him his life. But in the last 12 years, Mr. Kaufman says, Mr. Biden has made a complete recovery and maintains a demanding schedule in the Senate.

Unique in the Senate, Mr. Biden still commutes by train daily from his home in Wilmington to and from Washington, a practice he began years ago when a car accident killed his wife and left two of his three children injured. His two sons are now grown and away from home and his daughter is a sophomore at Georgetown. His second wife teaches and maintains the family home in Wilmington.

One encouragement for Mr. Biden, Mr. Kaufman notes, is that he has already run once for president, knows what it entails and still has a network of supporters from his first attempt.

Also, because he dropped out months before the first 1988 caucuses in Iowa and the first primary in New Hampshire, his appeal has never really been tested on the national stage. He remains a dynamic speaker -- to the point of over-exuberance, some say -- and is a more seasoned politician now.

Mr. Biden isn't the first possible 2004 candidate to visit an early nomination state.

Democratic Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina has already been to Iowa, where the first presidential precinct caucuses are held, and others are sure to follow there and in New Hampshire.

It may seem insanely early to voters who haven't recovered yet from the 2000 race and the Florida fiasco. But hopefuls with less name recognition than Mr. Biden know it's never too early to start building it in these two states, always magnets for political coverage.

Early polls, meanwhile, indicate that former Vice President Al Gore is regarded the front-runner for 2004. But the fact many Democrats believe he lost an election in November that he should have won, given the eight prosperous years of the Clinton administration, clearly is encouraging other White House dreamers to think about joining the fray, and early.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau. His latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).

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