Biden Aides Plot Strategy

Senator Sheds ’88 Approach

Posted June 20, 2003 at 6:11pm

A small band of former aides loyal to Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) has begun to assemble the skeletal infrastructure of a presidential campaign team, preparing to swing into action if Biden decides to join the swelling field.

The team of Biden veterans, many of whom served on his aborted 1988 campaign, are set to occupy the top spots of a bare-bones operation, laying the campaign’s groundwork and allowing Biden to maintain a nonpolitical image for the remainder of the summer.

With Biden still possibly three or more months from making an official announcement, even some of his supporters acknowledge his biggest problem will come in trying to assemble the second- and third-tier levels of campaign staff, particularly in early states such as Iowa and New Hampshire where top-notch field operations are critical. And it remains to be seen if a late-starting Biden could haul in the $10 million to $15 million he would need, particularly since his Senate campaign account barely topped $323,000 on March 31.

Regardless of the skepticism about a Biden candidacy among his potential adversaries and political professional class, the Delaware Democrat said he doesn’t plan to run a top-heavy campaign laden with pricey consultants and pollsters.

“If I run, I don’t need anybody to tell me what my message is,” he said in an interview last week.

Biden said he has no plans to open an exploratory campaign committee this summer — he will simply jump into the race this fall if he decides he’s ready — and stressed that he has no trips to any of the early primary states planned at this point. Instead, he spent this past weekend in the Middle East and hopes to make another trip there in August, focusing almost exclusively on his work as ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee.

If he makes a presidential bid, Biden said he would rely on “a relatively small group of people who have known me a long period of time and who I trust.”

Key figures in a Biden campaign would start with his sister, Valerie Biden-Owens, who co-chaired his 1988 campaign and currently works for the media firm run by Joe Slade White. That firm served as the media consultant for Biden’s most recent re-election campaigns, and would likely take on the same role in a presidential campaign, advisers say. Biden-Owens did not return several calls for comment.

Ted Kaufman, his longtime chief of staff who worked for Biden until the mid-1990s, would also play a critical senior advisory role. David Wilhelm, who directed Biden’s Iowa operations in 1987 and went on to be a Democratic National Committee chairman, is also likely to return to the fold for the Delaware Democrat, sources said.

Other top advisers would include Alan Hoffman, a former Biden chief of staff who left the Senate office this spring to take a lobbying job at Timmons and Company, and Danny O’Brien, the current chief of staff in his Senate office. O’Brien’s area of expertise is campaigns; he oversaw the coordinated Democratic operations in Nevada in 2000 and in the New Jersey gubernatorial elections in 2001.

Biden’s team also hopes to win the support of Chicago attorney Joe Cari, the finance chairman for the Democratic National Committee in the 2000 cycle.

Kaufman, who was finance chairman of the brief ’88 campaign, said last week that this kitchen cabinet of Biden advisers are trying to put together the pieces of the campaign and assemble the critical information about what will be required so that the Senator can focus full-time on his day job. “Senator Biden’s going to decide somewhere in the fall,” Kaufman said. “In the interim his friends and family are doing the things that need to be done.”

Others downplayed the discussions of the Biden team, saying that they were carrying out only rudimentary activities, such as researching filing deadlines in key primary states.

In setting up a potential campaign in this manner, Biden has essentially taken the exact opposite approach to a presidential bid he did 16 years ago. Back then, after former Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) dropped out of the race in May 1987 amid a sex scandal, Biden quickly consolidated much of the top talent in the Democratic Party and had hauled in $4 million by September 1987, a huge sum at that time.

His consultants included David Doak and Ron Klain at one time. His New Hampshire team was headed by Rob Engel (who is now on staff at the National Committee for an Effective Congress) and Anne Lewis, later a top Clinton White House adviser. Bill Daley, the future Commerce secretary, was a special assistant to Biden.

After the campaign fell apart in September 1987 amid plagiarism and resume-inflation allegations, Biden became convinced he had set up a top-heavy campaign, his advisers say today.

In mapping out his current strategy, the entire premise of a potential campaign is based on the idea that none of the current field breaks away from the pack, something which, so far at least, has played out according to his plan.

“He’s at least as well-known as any of the announced candidates,” said Sen. Tom

Carper (D-Del.), who will endorse Biden if he runs. With no one establishing themselves as a clear frontrunner, Carper contended, “There are rewards for a candidate staying out of the race.”

Those rewards would essentially be the ability to go to White House meetings and Sunday talk shows without the veneer of presidential politics getting in the way. According to Roll Call’s survey of the Sunday shows, Biden has made six appearances on the five main political gab fests in 2003, more than any of the current contenders serving in Congress.

But without actually getting out on the stump and asking for votes — as well as seeking dollars, workers and volunteers — Biden is taking a huge risk.

In Iowa, for example, Wilhelm could prove to be a valuable asset, someone with Hawkeye State and national experience. But there is no operation in place right now. In the summer of 1987, Wilhelm had two top deputies in Iowa, Michael Lux, who is now head of D.C.-based Progressive Strategies, and Bruce Keppel, who is now executive director of the Iowa branch of AARP.

Neither man is expected to be with Biden this time around. “It is very late and the talent pool is not very deep. The money pool is not very deep,” said Lux, who is officially neutral, and praised Biden’s “long and deep foreign policy experience.”

Another potential backer in Iowa is Lowell Junkins, a former state Senate Democratic leader and the party’s gubernatorial nominee in 1986. He worked in Iowa for Biden in 1987 and eventually became national field director.

Junkins said last week he has had informal talks with Biden’s staff about a potential candidacy, but has not yet spoken to the Senator, and no one has specifically asked for Junkins’ help if Biden runs. While he thinks Biden still has time to get into the race, Junkins said he sees Labor Day as the point at which Iowans begin to seriously choose sides for their mid-January caucus.

“If somebody’s not in this race by the middle of August, then things really begin to close up,” he said, adding: “You’ve got to be on the ground. You can’t put that together in September and October. In Iowa, you have to show your hand before you play it.”

Financially, Biden has had two big bases of support; trial lawyers and Jewish donors who support his work on Foreign Relations.

Of the top 20 bundling companies in donations to his 2002 campaign, for example, 15 of them were law firms, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

But Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), a trial lawyer by trade, has already become the top recipient of that sector’s contributions, and Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), the most prominent Jewish politician in America, is likely to be the top recipient of Jewish contributions.

Biden’s supporters seem to be banking on the prospect that by the time he starts campaigning full speed, some of the other candidates will have already abandoned the field and the Delaware Democrat can scoop up some of their financial backers. “As other candidates drop out, some of them will come back to Joe,” Carper said.

In the meantime, Biden said he will go about his business, trying not to focus on presidential politics. If one of the current contenders pulls away from the field or if he realizes he waited too long, Biden said he will be very happy to remain a Senator.

“I don’t know,” he said when asked if it’s too late to get in the race. “All the smart money says it is.”