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Clinton awaits Biden's answer on a presidential run, but she could be waiting awhile

Clinton awaits Biden's answer on a presidential run, but she could be waiting awhile
Over the last quarter of a century or so, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Joe Biden, shown above in Washington in 2013, have collaborated and competed, shared more than a dozen staff members, and served in President Obama's Cabinet. Now, their long relationship is being tested as he considers a presidential run. (Cliff Owen / Associated Press)

As Vice President Joe Biden escalates what could be a prolonged deliberation over whether to run for president, the summer of 2015 is shaping up to be an unsettlingly endless one for Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Biden is in no rush to decide, even at a time when a campaign typically would ramp up. The first Democratic presidential debate on Oct. 13 could come and go, and he still may be mulling it over.

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Nothing is stopping him from waiting until after the Iowa caucuses in February. Or even the New Hampshire primary. Simply put, Biden could remain a nuisance for the Clinton campaign into next year without ever launching a bid.

The Clinton campaign would like Biden to hurry up and decide. It is grappling with eroding poll numbers, government investigations into an unorthodox email server, and the prospect of losing the bellwether state of New Hampshire to upstart Bernie Sanders. The vice president's continual scoping of the race creates yet another intangible that there is no easy playbook for managing.

Facing what could be the last consequential political decision of his career, Biden is proceeding cautiously. The path to the nomination he and his team are mapping out with longtime allies and key party figures is bumping up against his close-knit family's wrestling with whether it wants to reengage in the political fray while mourning a devastating loss, the death of Biden's son Beau this spring.

"We're dealing at home with ... whether or not there is the emotional fuel at this time to run," Biden told dozens of members of the Democratic National Committee on Wednesday on a call set up for him to promote the Iran nuclear deal.

As CNN first reported, Biden was asked about running.

"If I were to announce to run, I have to be able to commit to all of you that I would be able to give it my whole heart and my whole soul, and right now, both are pretty well banged up," he said.

Friends say he will not be rushed.

"If he and his family are not ready to make this decision, they have every right not to make a decision," said Mark Gitenstein, a longtime friend of Biden who worked on his Senate staff during his first presidential campaign, in 1988. "He should make a decision based on what is A) best for the country, but also for him and his family. He has every right to do that. And when he's ready to do it."

Before his decision to mount his second presidential run in 2008, the extended Biden clan met to share with the family patriarch their view that he should enter the race. And it was at a family birthday party that Biden told them that then-Sen. Barack Obama had asked him to join the Democratic ticket as his running mate, a decision the family affirmed together.

No such large family discussion has yet taken place, according to people familiar with the family's deliberation. Instead, the vice president has had regular, ongoing consultations to gauge their readiness for a campaign. Hunter Biden is among those in the family eager to see his father run, as was his older brother, Beau. Less clear is the view of Biden's wife, Jill, who is "as much a deciding vote as anybody," as one person familiar with the family's thinking put it.

Meanwhile, Biden's stepped-up involvement in planning for a potential campaign has sparked ever more intense scrutiny. A weekend meeting with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a favorite of the progressive base, and an upcoming gathering of Democratic donors at the vice president's official residence were characterized as the moves of a candidate-in-waiting.

Aides don't dispute that Biden has become more personally involved in the process but insist that the majority of his contacts are him responding to, rather than seeking out, potential support. The September meeting of donors, for instance, is the same Rosh Hashana celebration the Bidens have hosted at their Naval Observatory home each year of his vice presidency, just like an annual Hispanic Heritage Month event that will follow.

As the first debate approaches in October, Biden's would-be rivals will have spent months engaging with voters and building campaign infrastructure. While some question the effectiveness of an operation Biden would build in a considerably shorter time, his team appears undaunted, in part because of the advantages inherent in being a sitting vice president. (And one big task – fundraising – would in some ways be less daunting as the months go on. A shorter time frame means fewer rallies to pay for and fewer months funding a staff payroll.)

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His aides view the thinking that it is too late, or that he is too much of an underdog, as wrong, just like so much other conventional wisdom this election. Nobody predicted the rise of Donald Trump, they say. Or that Bernie Sanders would lead in polling in New Hampshire. A talented political pro like Biden could quickly narrow the gap with Clinton, in a campaign climate that suits him as well as any in his career.

"These primary battles are so much about momentum," said Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist who led Obama's 2012 reelection campaign in Florida and recently joined the independent Draft Biden super PAC that aims to build support for a possible campaign. "I think it's less a question of can you build the behemoth campaign that we had on the reelect or that the Clintons are doing now. It's more, can you build what you need in those first four or five states to make a run?"

Some of Biden's supporters openly cite Clinton's potential vulnerability as a factor.

"Hillary Clinton is damaged goods," said former South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian, who spoke with the vice president in the last month. "I don't think she can win in November of 2016, and I think Joe Biden can."

A Biden run could ultimately be a blessing for Clinton, though. Throughout the summer, she has been plagued by the curse of the front-runner: campaigning guardedly, beset by fumbles magnified by her outsized standing in the uncrowded field, and contending with resentment from voters who want a real race.

It is familiar territory. In her last presidential run, Clinton's performance on the trail improved considerably when she got bumped out of the pole position.

Veteran pollster Peter Hart said Clinton has been running a campaign that is "reluctant and cautious, rather than expansive and enthusiastic" – just like she did when she was way ahead in the polls in 2007. "Her best moments then were either when she was behind or when they were in the real heat of the battle. … Generally speaking, candidates are better off when there is a contested race."

Many Democratic voters prefer it, too. A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found in April that 43% wanted credible challengers in the race. Clinton is treading cautiously.

"I just want the vice president to decide to do what is right for him and his family," she said in Iowa on Wednesday. "I don't think it is useful to be behind the scenes, asking this or saying that. I just want him to reach whatever he thinks the right decision is. He has to do that. And it has to be a really hard one. I was at his son's funeral. I can't even imagine the grief and the heartbreak."

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Her campaign is taking subtle steps that may be aimed at discouraging Biden from a run, scrambling to lock down key endorsements and donors while he remains on the sidelines. That much was clear from the former Iowa governor who was standing next to Clinton on Wednesday. That politician, Tom Vilsack, is also one of Biden's colleagues at the top of the Obama administration, serving as Agriculture secretary.

"I love Joe Biden, just like we all do," Vilsack said. "He is a wonderful man. … But our friends and neighbors in Iowa need to know … we firmly stand behind Hillary, and we will till the last dog dies."

For more campaign coverage, follow @evanhalper and @mikememoli

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