Late to 2020 party, Biden and Sanders bide their time

14 Feb 2019 / 10:02 H.

WASHINGTON: With nine prominent Democrats already declared as 2020 presidential hopefuls, and more than a dozen others mulling campaigns, are heavyweights Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders waiting too long to enter the fray?

Last weekend two more Democrats – both female US senators – formally launched their bids, joining a historically diverse field as the party prepares to mount its battle against President Donald Trump.

As the field expands, potentially to its largest in the modern era, experts are splitting the Democratic nomination race into two camps: the haves – featuring several US senators including Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren – and the have yets, starring Biden and Sanders.

Both men have said they will announce in due course whether they pursue the presidency.

Some observers openly question whether Biden or Sanders, both losing presidential candidates in the past, are the right men for the job, given the potential changing of the guard underway in the party.

Lesser known candidates like Obama-era cabinet member Julian Castro, 44, and congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, 37, were under pressure to enter early, thereby boosting their name recognition, building campaign networks and wooing donors.

Former vice president Biden and independent Senator Sanders are no strangers to high-stakes politics, and observers say they are patiently waiting for the best opportunity to jump in.

“I think they both have time. They’re looking for the right windows,“ Calista Lake, a veteran Democratic pollster, told AFP.

Mighty crowded

Beto O’Rourke, a 46-year-old former congressman from Texas, is also mulling a run, and said he will announce his intentions this month.

Others considering jumping in include billionaire New York ex-mayor Michael Bloomberg, other senators, and several current and former governors.

Even establishment figures and former presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and John Kerry have not shut the door.

Amid a mad scramble to scoop up talented staff in early-voting states like Iowa, and to lock in deep-pocketed donors, Biden and Sanders are playing the long game, avoiding early slugging matches with rivals.

Biden has run twice before and tops 2020 polls, including a recent Emerson College survey that found he has support from 29% of expected Iowa Democratic caucus voters.

Harris earned 18%, followed by Sanders at 15% and Warren at 11.

Biden and Sanders would be among the best candidates in one crucial quality, Lake said: the ability to defeat Trump.

“We have a lot of good candidates, but in terms of who can beat Donald Trump,“ Biden and Sanders “have an advantage,“ she said.

Both are seen as having the potential not only to lure Trump voters fed up with the president, but to engage in the fierce combat with Trump that will mark 2020.

Lake downplayed concerns that Biden or Sanders, both in their 70s, would face younger, more energetic candidates on the trail.

“People want change, but that doesn’t necessarily mean youth,“ she said, noting that a viable economic plan such as Biden’s back-to-basics pitch to middle-class workers would resonate with voters across the political spectrum.

‘Adept enough?’

But the party is clearly shifting leftward, and getting younger.

Some of the most influential new congressional Democrats are in their early 30s, pushing a progressive agenda in Washington.

“There’s a debate about the young guard versus the old,“ acknowledged longtime Democratic strategist Jim Manley.

“We are now a party of big ideas, and the question is whether some of the elder statesmen of the party are adept enough” to lead a new generation of Democrats.

Biden and Sanders importantly bring formidable fundraising prowess to the table, and can rely on a virtual cottage industry of loyal aides and volunteers.

But as the race heats up, some strategists wonder whether Biden, who carries policy baggage from decades in the Senate, would be a winning political savior, given strong voter appetite for change.

“I’m just not convinced he’s the right choice for us as a party at this point in time,“ Manley said.

Another Democratic strategist, Pittsburgh-based Mike Mikus, said the party is focused on a singular mission: finding the candidate best prepared to defeat Trump.

“These ideological and generational battles may wait until beyond 2020,“ he said.

While lesser-known candidates feel compelled to enter early while running the risk of peaking too soon, Biden and Sanders have the “luxury” of delay, Mikus said.

But they risk waiting too long. “I don’t think we’re there yet, but we’re approaching it,“ he said.

Senator Tom Carper, from Biden’s state of Delaware, told AFP he has advice for his friend: “No need to rush.”

Asked about the diverse field Biden would face, Carper chuckled: “There are a lot of great prospective vice presidents in that group.” — AFP

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