Joe Biden: Sleeper Candidate

Senator Joseph Biden, D-Del., speaks on NBC's "Meet the Press", Sunday, Aug. 1, 2004
This column was written by Bill Whalen.
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?