Vice President Joe Biden and his associates have begun to actively explore a possible presidential campaign, which would upend the Democratic field and deliver a direct threat to Hillary Rodham Clinton, several people who have spoken to Biden or his closest advisers say.
Biden’s advisers have started to reach out to Democratic leaders and donors who have not yet committed to Clinton or who have grown concerned about what they see as her increasingly visible vulnerabilities as a candidate.
The conversations, often fielded by Biden’s chief of staff, Steve Ricchetti, have taken place through hushed phone calls and quiet lunches. In most cases they have grown out of an outpouring of sympathy for Biden since the death of his son, Beau, 46, in May.
On Saturday, the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd reported that Biden had been holding meetings at his residence, “talking to friends, family and donors about jumping in” to challenge Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two nominating states.
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One longtime Biden supporter said the vice president had been deeply moved by his son’s desire for him to run.
“He was so close to Beau and it was so heartbreaking that, frankly, I thought initially he wouldn’t have the heart,” the supporter, Michael Thornton, a Boston lawyer, said in an interview. “But I’ve had indications that maybe he does want to – and ‘that’s what Beau would have wanted me to do.’ ”
Biden’s path, should he run, would not be easy. Clinton has enormous support among Democrats inspired by the idea of electing a woman as president and her campaign has raised millions of dollars.
Additionally, Biden, who is 72, has in the past proved to be prone to embarrassing gaffes on the campaign trail. He would also face the critical task of building a field operation.
One Democrat with direct knowledge of the conversations described the outreach as a heady combination of donors and friends of Biden’s wanting to prop him up in his darkest hours, and of recent polls showing Clinton’s support among independents declining, suggesting there could be a path to the nomination for the vice president.
Dowd reported that as Beau Biden lay dying from brain cancer, he “tried to make his father promise to run, arguing that the White House should not revert to the Clintons and that the country would be better off with Biden values.” Biden’s other son, Hunter, also encouraged him to run, she wrote.
The support Biden has garnered speaks to growing concerns among Democrats that Clinton could lose in Iowa and New Hampshire, as the populist message of one of her opponents, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, draws swelling crowds.
“The reality is it’s going to be a tough, even-steven kind of race, and there’s that moment a lot of party establishment would start exactly this kind of rumble: ‘Is there anybody else?’” said Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist.
At the same time, the slow trickle of news about Clinton’s use of private email when she was secretary of state and the coming Benghazi hearings may be distracting some voters from the core message of her campaign: the need to lift the middle class.
“It’s not that we dislike Hillary, it’s that we want to win the White House,” said Richard A. Harpootlian, a lawyer and Democratic donor in Columbia, South Carolina, who met with Ricchetti before Beau Biden died. “We have a better chance of doing that with somebody who is not going to have all the distractions of a Clinton campaign.”
A spokeswoman for the Clinton campaign declined to comment.
In a July 30 Quinnipiac poll, 57 percent of voters said Clinton was not honest and trustworthy and 52 percent said she did not care about their needs or problems. The same poll showed Biden with his highest favorability rating, 49 percent, in seven years, with 58 percent saying he was honest and trustworthy and 57 percent saying he cared about them.
“The No. 1 thing voters want is a candidate who is honest and trustworthy, and the veep is leading in those polls,” said William Pierce, executive director of Draft Biden, a “super PAC” that is trying to build enthusiasm for a possible candidacy.
Biden could still decide not to run. Confidants say they expect him to make something official by early September. Other than by not ruling out a run and by holding preliminary meetings, he has not openly fueled speculation about his candidacy. As of Saturday, he had no trips planned to Iowa or New Hampshire in the coming weeks. But an intermediary recruited by the vice president’s office has been in touch with potential staff members who have not yet signed on to the Clinton campaign.
Kendra Barkoff, a Biden spokeswoman, said, “As the Biden family continues to go through this difficult time, the vice president is focused on his family and immersed in his work.”
A 2016 run would be the third time Biden, a longtime senator from Delaware, has sought the presidency, which friends say is his ultimate dream.
Biden’s first campaign in 1988 ended in heartbreak after news reports that he plagiarized parts of a speech and exaggerated his academic record forced him to drop out. In 2008, he drew less than 1 percent of the vote in the Iowa caucuses and dropped out after making controversial comments about Barack Obama, then seeking his first term in the White House. Biden said he was “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean.”
Obama later chose Biden as his running mate. In the early months of the 2016 campaign, the president has been careful not to undermine or wholeheartedly endorse either his former secretary of state or his vice president.
“The president has said that the best political decision he’s ever made in his career has been to ask Joe Biden to run as his vice president,” Eric Schultz, a White House spokesman said last week.
Friends described Biden’s relationship with Clinton in the Senate as cordial and warm. But in his long career in Democratic politics, Biden has clashed with former President Bill Clinton, and his relationship with Hillary Clinton has not been without awkwardness. One close Biden confidant, Ron Klain, has been in contact with Clinton’s campaign about helping her prepare for the Democratic debates, a sign some people interpreted as evidence Biden would decide against a run.
Ricchetti, a White House aide in the Clinton administration who is now Biden’s chief of staff, began talking to donors and supporters in the months before Beau Biden died.
In recent weeks those talks, with local elected officials and party leaders, started again, mostly because well-wishers were calling to check on the Biden family. The talk inevitably drifted to 2016, and many of these Democrats urged Biden to seriously consider getting into the race, said people with knowledge of the talks who agreed to discuss private conversations only anonymously.
Ricchetti declined to comment.
The speculation intensified Thursday when friends of Clinton’s spotted Ricchetti having breakfast at the Four Seasons in Washington with Louis B. Susman, a major donor and former ambassador to Britain. Fox News reported on the meeting.
Susman - who has already made the maximum donation allowed in the primary, $2,700, to Clinton’s campaign and who is a longtime friend of the Biden family - dismissed any implication that he was discussing the vice president’s plans.
“He wasn’t testing the waters with me,” Susman said of Ricchetti. “There was never any discussion of the presidential campaign or money.”
Biden is by no means a virtuoso campaigner. But his entry into the race would add an unbridled -often unscripted - passion for the presidency that some Democrats say the ever-cautious Clinton at times lacks.
One Democratic donor with direct knowledge of the overtures from the Biden camp said Biden had already thought about how he would position himself in the race, delivering an economic message to the left of Clinton’s while embracing Obama administration policies, like health care reform, that are widely popular among Democrats.