There is little that deters Joe Biden once he starts. The enormous butterfly that had somehow fluttered into the room wasn’t going to distract him, nor the giant phalanx of cameras and reporters at the back.
Instead, addressing guests and students at a community college here, he improvised jokes about both. “It’s amazing how good the school is,” he offered near the top of a 35-minute speech, after touring a new bio-tech lab in Miami-Dade College.
“Look at all the press you’ve attracted. Their interest in community colleges impresses me. I hope that’s what they’re going to write about!”
Well, no, not exactly, and the Vice-President knows it. His arrival in Miami for two scheduled public events – his first in over a month – as well as a $33,000-a-head Democratic fund-raiser at a donor’s home, augured the start of the “Joe Biden tease tour”. Will he or won’t he?
Word emerged last month that Mr Biden, who lost his son, Beau, to cancer in May and who is now in his seventh year as Vice-President, was considering a belated leap into the race for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. If he did so, it could turn the campaign of Hillary Clinton upside down.
If she weren’t showing signs of struggling amidst the investigation into her use of a personal email server while Secretary of State, surely he wouldn’t even be considering it. Still, he will face daunting odds if he joins the fray.
Ms Clinton already has a head start in money-raising and organising on the ground. And Mr Biden, 72, has tried this twice before, most recently in 2008, and has never done too well.
Even the death of his son offers conflicting arguments. The family is not over its grieving for him. Yet before he died, Beau Biden is said to have urged his father to run. A week ago, Mr Biden told delegates at a Democratic National Committee meeting in a conference call that he was trying to assess whether he had the “emotional fuel” to go forward.
“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 offered.
But in Miami, Mr Biden did nothing to quell the buzz. Reporters lunged for their pencils at the community college, when, talking about adults having the courage to return to college, he stated: “People who aren’t willing to risk failure never succeed.” As he finished speaking, some in the media tried to ask if would declare, prompting one guest to yell: “Run, Joe!”
And he devoted long passages of his speech to red-meat Democrat issues, including income inequality and the shrinking of the middle class. “We can’t let that stand,” he bellowed. “People believe that there is an American promise, there is an American dream – that if, in fact, you do all you can to play by the rules, that you can get ahead. That is the American dream… we must restore that bargain.”
His burst of public activity included a meeting with Jewish community leaders here to defend the nuclear agreement with Iran. He was greeted upon arrival by about 800 protesters chanting: “We need a better deal.”
He is scheduled to join a Labour Day march with union heads in Pittsburgh on Monday and to be among the first guests of Stephen Colbert, the comedian who makes his debut replacing David Letterman as the late-night talk host on CBS next week. If it’s not a campaign yet, it feels like one.
Among those at Miami-Dade College was the local US Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, a Democrat. She said she didn’t know if Mr Biden had the “passion” to jump into the race.
“I know what it’s like to lose a child,” she said, adding that if he did run, it would be hard on Florida Democrats who are equally devoted to him and Ms Clinton. “It would be very difficult” to choose between them, she admitted.
A new Ipsos/Reuters poll shows some space for him. Even without declaring himself a candidate, he garnered 17 per cent among Democrats nationally, compared with 44 per cent for Ms Clinton. Although Senator Bernie Sanders has strong numbers in early primary-voting states, he drew only 25 per cent nationally.
The top Florida Democrat consultant Steve Schale, who twice spearheaded the Obama campaigns in the state, has thrown his weight behind a Biden run. “I hope the Vice-President will make the decision to seek the presidency,” he said in a recent statement. But the US Senator Bill Nelson, who was at the Wednesday night fund-raiser, has doubts.
“As long as Hillary has not fallen to this inquiry, and I think she will overcome this, under those circumstances I don’t think Joe will get into the race. That’s just my personal opinion,” he told the Palm Beach Post.
With magical thinking you can just see Mr Biden making it all the way to the Oval Office. The fluttering intruder, which he himself had identified as a butterfly, seemed like a good omen. Except that, after he had left, on closer inspection it turned out to be a moth.
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