Could a Joe Biden campaign help Hillary Clinton?

If Vice President Biden gets into the presidential race, he could help Hillary Clinton step up her game as a campaigner.

Evan Vucci/AP/File
Vice President Joe Biden speaks in the South Court Auditorium on the White House campus in Washington in June. Although Biden has yet to make a decision on a run for the presidency, his advisers say the discussions taking form in the last several weeks are serious enough that the vice president and his associates have started gaming out mechanics like fundraising, ballot deadlines and an early primary state strategy.

If Joe Biden jumps into the 2016 presidential contest, there’s no doubt that his decision will be seen as a slap at Hillary Clinton.

After all, part of the vice president’s calculation has to be that there’s room for him in the Democratic nomination race – despite former Secretary of State Clinton’s large lead in national polls, massive fundraising, major endorsements, and a fully developed organization. The room for Vice President Biden comes, obviously, from the investigation into the handling of her State Department e-mails. We don’t know what we don’t know, and that leaves Clinton vulnerable.

In short, Democrats increasingly believe they need a backup. Just in case. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont, the self-described socialist with a devoted Democratic following, is seen as too much of a niche candidate to compete effectively in the general election.

Biden hails from the Democratic mainstream, and in stature is more Clinton’s equal.

In the end, it's possible that a Biden candidacy could end up helping Clinton. Two points on that, as noted by NBC News’ “First Read” blog: The entry of Biden into the race would deflect attention from the e-mail story. And it would force Clinton to step up her game as a campaigner.

"She's a terrible front-runner but she's a marvelous candidate when she gets into the middle of the race," Democratic pollster Peter Hart said on NBC’s "Meet the Press" Sunday. “And there you see her intelligence, her experience, and her toughness. At this stage it's all fumbles.”

Just as the epic showdown between Clinton and then-Sen. Barack Obama in 2008 helped both candidates hone their skills as campaigners and debaters, so too could Biden give her a run for her money. The danger (to her) is that he pulls an Obama and beats her. But if she survives, she enters the general election in fighting trim to take on the Republican nominee.

In May, when Senator Sanders announced his candidacy, a Clinton spokesperson welcomed him as a “sparring partner.”

Today, the early read by pundits on Biden’s potential campaign is that Clinton does not want a sparring partner, and will do whatever she can to discourage Biden from getting in.

Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., predicts that Team Clinton will soon plant negative stories about Biden as a warning shot. Examples include the discharge of Biden’s younger son, Hunter, last year from the Navy over cocaine use and Joe Biden’s brother’s alleged use of family connections to win government contracts.

“The message: if you run, we will hurt you,” writes Professor Pitney on his blog. “The goal: to deter him from running.”

“Biden and Clinton both ran for the nomination in 2008, so we know that Team Clinton already has an oppo file on him,” Pitney adds. “We also know that the Clintons do not hesitate to smack down opponents.”

Still, since the 2008 campaign, a lot has transpired, including Biden’s 6-½ years as vice president and the death in May of Biden’s older son. Beau Biden’s passing adds a poignant aspect to his father’s potential campaign, as Beau is reported to have told his father from his deathbed that he wanted him to run again. Beau’s death also has shined a light on his father’s devotion to family and close relationship with President Obama.

The Joe Biden of 1988 (the first time he ran for president) and 2008 is not the Joe Biden of 2015.

Democratic communications strategist Peter Fenn doesn’t see Biden building a campaign on attacks against Clinton.

“I don’t think he’s comfortable with any kind of negative, nasty campaign,” Mr. Fenn says. “Why end your career that way?”

But that’s not to say that his surrogates wouldn’t go for the jugular. Liberal pundit Michael Tomasky, writing at The Daily Beast, predicts a Clinton vs. Biden primary would get ugly.

“He’s going to have to run a campaign that says, sub rosa: ‘I’m a stronger and safer nominee because she’s corrupt,’” Mr. Tomasky writes.

The flip side of the argument that a spirited primary could make Clinton stronger is that it could make her weaker. Mitt Romney emerged victorious but damaged from the raucous Republican nomination contest in 2012, and lost in the general election to President Obama.

Chances are, Clinton doesn’t want Biden to get into the race. But she has no say in the matter.

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