At Democratic Party meeting, Joe Biden’s the elephant <b><i>not</i></b> in the room

Presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks at the Democratic National Committee summer meeting in Minneapolis.
(Adam Bettcher / Getty Images)

It was a meeting of Democrats, their heroes, their hopes and their neuroses.

All were there under one roof but one — Vice President Joe Biden, whose deliberations over making a late entry in the presidential race injected unexpected intrigue into the party’s summer meeting in Minneapolis this week. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign found itself working aggressively to show off its strength to rivals both current and potential and quietly reassuring Democrats that she was capable of moving past the controversies that have dogged her campaign.

“We are building something that will last long after next November,” Clinton said to party stalwarts Friday. “Other candidates may be fighting for a particular ideology, but I’m fighting for you and your families.”


Although she cast herself as the next in line for the party’s nomination, the will-he-won’t-he speculation over Biden exposed lingering divisions and doubts about Clinton’s bid. There were progressives who’ve aligned behind Sen. Bernie Sanders’ candidacy and see no need for Biden as another Clinton alternative.

There were the longtime Obama partisans with memories of the 2008 primary fight who remain wary of Clinton and her operation. There were folks newly frustrated with Clinton’s handling of questions about her use of a private email server as secretary of State and talk of needing a Biden escape hatch if things did not improve. And there were Clinton loyalists who want to tamp down the talk and move on.

“It makes people anxious,” said former Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell, a Clinton supporter. “It’s a fight we don’t want to see happen. For many of us, it would be like if your two children wanted the same job. It would be gut-wrenching.”

While Biden deliberates, Clinton’s campaign is locking down resources, talent and support — essentially boxing out Biden before he’s in the game. Clinton’s team held a briefing for delegates at which it outlined her strengths in the states with the first nominating contests — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — and pushed superdelegates, who may support any candidate they wish, to commit to Clinton early. Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook told supporters the approach to Biden’s bid was clear.

“He’s our vice president. We respect him; we respect whatever decision he makes,” Alice Huffman, a California superdelegate, said in summarizing Mook’s message. “If he gets in the race, we’ll respect him in the race. But we’re going to win.”

Clinton said the early rush to lock in delegate support — still 11 months away from the nominating convention — was a lesson from the hard-fought 2008 primary.

“I got a lot of votes,” she told reporters of the heated primary against then-Sen. Barack Obama. “But I didn’t get enough delegates. I think it’s understandable that my focus is going to be on delegates.”

Clinton, of course, already has a primary fight to worry about. Sanders’ rise in the polls in New Hampshire and ability to draw large crowds has given Clinton more of a fight than many expected. On Friday, the independent Vermont senator running in the Democratic primary argued that only he could deliver the enthusiasm that would bring Democratic voters to the polls in numbers needed to win.

“Democrats will not retain the White House … unless we generate excitement and momentum and produce a huge voter turnout,” Sanders told the crowd. “That turnout, that enthusiasm will not happen with politics as usual. The same old, same old will not work.”

But some Democrats here view a Clinton-Biden primary fight differently. It would divide the party not along clear ideological lines, as Sanders’ bid does, but between personalities. It could become about Clinton’s weaknesses as a candidate — certain elements of her history and her trouble winning a slice of white working-class voters. It has the potential to be negative. It could get personal.

Not all feel the sense of dread. The competition could be good for the party, some say. A battle of ideas might be useful. Some drama might reclaim some of the spotlight stolen by the raucous Republican primary led by Donald Trump.

A more competitive primary could make Clinton a better candidate, some observers say, if she uses it to speak more directly about the troubles that have led some to go looking for another candidate. Clinton’s past use of a personal email account for government business and her handling of questions over the release of those emails is viewed by some Democrats as a self-inflicted wound, and one that can only be repaired by straight talk from the candidate. She took a step in that direction Wednesday, acknowledging that using the private email server as secretary of State was “clearly not the best choice.”

Democratic National Committee vice chairman and former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said Thursday that he saw an opportunity for Clinton to make a needed breakthrough.

“She is one step away from an incredibly close connection with the American people. They’ve seen her through ups and downs. They’ve see her through political challenges. They’ve seen her through personal challenges,” he said. “I think that the test of this will be how much she can recognize that authenticity is everything right now.”

On Friday, she made no mention of the emails in her remarks. She delivered a fairly standard stump speech, which gained steam and enthusiasm as she ramped up mockery of Trump, his rivals and his hair.

“A lot of people have said a lot of things about my hair over the years,” Clinton said, saying she relates to Trump on this one issue. “And if anyone wonders if mine is real, here is the answer. The hair is real; the color is not.

“And come to think of it, I wonder if that is true for Donald too,” Clinton added.

Other candidates won their own applause lines. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley drew cheers for his passionate tirade against the party — and its limited debate schedule, which he says is rigged to favor Clinton.

“How does this help us tell the story of the last eight years of Democratic progress? How does this promote our Democratic ideas?” he asked. “Is this how the Democratic Party selects its nominee?”

Former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee also addressed the group, noting that he was a candidate free of “scandal,” a comment he later said was not directed at Clinton.

Sanders, too, avoided confrontation with the front-runner and managed to deflect when asked about the topic of the week.

“That’s a good question,” Sanders deadpanned when asked for his thoughts on Biden. “I’ve been asked that about 14 million times.”