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Sleeper Candidate

Joe Biden's interest in the presidency comes back to haunt Democrats.

12:00 AM, Aug 18, 2005 • By BILL WHALEN
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IMAGINE THAT RIP VAN WINKLE was a Democrat--one waking up from an 18-year slumber.

As Rip nodded off in the summer of 1987, his party was mobilizing to take down a conservative Supreme Court nominee. Rip's fellow Dems needed the win: They'd lost two national elections during the decade to a president they were convinced was a lunkhead; opinions differed over whether the party needed to chart a more moderate course. But Rip remembered that help was on the way in the form of New York's most glamorous Democrat (Mario Cuomo), who was the odds-on-favorite to be the next president. Not much has changed.

And there's been one other constant in Rip's life: Joe Biden, now as then, running for president.

Biden, Delaware's senior Democratic senator and a presidential hopeful in 1987 (before his campaign scandalously flamed out--we'll get to that in a moment), is not a formal candidate. But earlier this summer he took the first step in that direction, launching a political action committee called Unite Our States. Its purpose, Biden said at a June press conference, was to address "the challenges facing our country by beginning to unite red and blue states, big cities and small towns, and Americans of all walks of life."

The second sure-fire sign that Biden is running is that he's writing a book. Random House, his publisher, calls it "the story of his remarkable 30-year career in the United States Senate--from journeyman days as a 29-year old Senator too young to be sworn in, to his rise to become one of the most powerful Democrats."

So what is Biden really up to? As one of at least four Democratic senators looking to go national in 2008, he could be simply trying to cut in line ahead of Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, who's positioning himself as the un-Hillary: a centrist from the Midwest. Or it could be a more complicated ploy. Biden, who turns 63 in November, will have to decide whether to seek a seventh Senate term come 2008. If he runs a wrecking-ball campaign aimed against all Democrats save Hillary, Biden, the ranking minority member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, presumably would stand a good chance at being secretary of State in a second Clinton administration.

Either way, a Biden candidacy would be the answer to a political trivia question: Name anyone who twice ran for president, taking a 20-year break in between campaigns. Which leads to another question, Is Biden Version 2.0 better positioned than the original model?

IN THEORY, Biden has advantages that other '08 hopefuls don't. As the only Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee making presidential overtures, he'll get plenty of airtime when the Roberts confirmation hearings convene (it's easy to come across as moderate, sitting next to Patrick Leahy, Edward Kennedy, and Charles Schumer). And, as the ranking Democrat on Foreign Relations Committee, he's a fixture on the Sunday talk-show circuit--a luxury he didn't have back in the summer of 1987 (rather than schlepping across Iowa and New Hampshire to get noticed, Biden first hinted at a presidential run during a Face the Nation appearance).

But who exactly is Biden's audience? Is it center-to-right voters in states his party automatically writes off--which would explain the senator's visits this year to South Carolina and Kentucky? An appearance earlier this month on Jon Stewart's Daily Show exhibited the difficulty a Democrat will have in reaching out to the center without leading too far off the base. Biden did strike one bipartisan note with Stewart by saying it would be "an honor" to run on a fusion ticket with John McCain. But earlier in the same interview--pandering to his audience--he railed against U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, imprudently calling President Bush's recess appointment "flat-out abusing power."

In order for his centrist strategy to work, Biden will have to be a more disciplined and mature candidate. After all, that's what contributed to his early collapse the first time he sought the presidency.

EIGHTEEN YEARS AGO, Biden's campaign unraveled only three-and-a-months after he first announced when it was revealed--by a rival operative, who leaked incriminated videotapes to the press--that the Delaware senator has been plagiarizing other politicians' material, including words from a television ad by former British Labor leader Neil Kinnock and speeches by Robert F. Kennedy and Hubert H. Humphrey.

The Kennedy theft went as follows:

RFK, in 1968: The gross national product . . . does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our devotion to our country.