As Democratic field expands, Biden waits on the sidelines

FILE - In this Dec. 13, 2018 file photo, former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Biden has been conspicuously absent from early voting states as he weighs a 2020 presidential campaign. That makes him an outlier among Democrats eying the White House. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (AP) — Former Vice President Joe Biden will headline his first public event in about three weeks on Saturday— in Munich, Germany, nearly 5,000 miles from Iowa, site of the presidential campaign's first contest.

As he weighs whether to jump into the race, Biden has been conspicuously absent from early voting states, making him an outlier among Democrats eying the White House. Nine Democrats have announced full-fledged campaigns, two have launched exploratory committees, and several others are blanketing Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina as they decide whether to launch a campaign. A half-dozen made the rounds this past weekend alone.

In a wide-open race, Biden's take-it-slow approach has given other candidates a head-start in fundraising, scooping up top tier staff and perfecting their pitch to voters. It's also given them a chance to chip away at what would be a central argument of a Biden campaign: that he is the only candidate who can defeat President Donald Trump in 2020.

Biden has said he'll only run if he doesn't believe Democrats have other viable options, and he's privately raised doubts about the electability of some of his potential rivals, according to a person with knowledge of those conversations who requested anonymity to speak about private discussions.

But some voters who have seen those candidates up close in recent weeks disagree.

"I like Joe. He's a good man and I like his character," said Audrey Wolf, a 72-year-old retired teacher and devout Democratic caucus-goer from Mason City. "But I will say, I'm just really open to the new faces out there."

Nick Maybanks, a 42-year-old Democratic voter from Cedar Rapids, said Biden's wavering on whether to launch a campaign "puts him a couple of paces back."

"While these others are here, I'm wondering if he would be committed to it," Maybanks, a county prosecutor, said of Biden as he and his family gathered to hear New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker address Iowa voters.

The former vice president initially expected to make his decision by now. But he blew through a self-imposed January deadline without a campaign announcement, and some longtime allies say they simply don't know when, or if, he'll enter the race.

"He's prepared, but he's also doing his due diligence," said Louisiana Rep. Cedric Richmond, the former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus who has spoken to Biden in the past two weeks.

But for now, he doesn't have plans to visit any of the early states. He heads to Michigan on Tuesday to deliver a eulogy at a funeral for Rep. John Dingell, the longest serving member of Congress. On Saturday, he'll speak at a high-profile national security summit in Germany.

Biden advisers say he can afford to get a later start. After eight years as vice president, he's well-known to most voters and has deep ties to Democratic activists in the early primary states. His tight-knit group of senior advisers is ready to swiftly stand up a campaign operation if Biden gives them the go-ahead.

The former vice president would also bring a more moderate track record to a campaign that is so far being defined by liberal candidates pushing big government programs, like a Green New Deal to tackle climate change and Medicare for All. Biden hasn't endorsed either concept.

Biden may also be the closest thing Democrats have to a front-runner in 2020, given his long history in politics. A recent CNN poll found about 6 in 10 Democrats said Biden should run, and 44 percent said they would be very likely to support him if he did — more than said this for any other potential Democratic candidate.

But the prospect of a Biden candidacy has not scared off other candidates.

California Sen. Kamala Harris has set the pace for the field, drawing an eye-popping 20,000 people to her campaign launch last month. Her early start has also helped her campaign bank crucial information on voters, including boosting its email list by 20 percent on Harris' first day as a candidate, according to a campaign aide.

Lesser known candidates are using the winter to start making introductions to voters. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's team sought to maximize media attention by announcing an exploratory committee during a week in mid-January when no other major campaign announcements were planned. She followed that up with quick trips to each of the early voting states, including a three-day swing through South Carolina that wrapped up Sunday.

Though she's only formed an exploratory committee at this point, Gillibrand has already hired 40 staffers.

Some Democratic strategists say the former vice president is letting valuable time slip away.

"You can't get time back," said Dan Pfeiffer, who advised Barack Obama's two successful presidential campaigns. "The Iowa caucus, which is the most complicated election in the country, is a year away and the candidates that wait very well may regret it."

Obama is said to have made similar points to the many prospective candidates he's met with so far, according to people with knowledge of the conversations. While the former president hasn't recommended a specific timetable to candidates, he has emphasized the importance of investing early in the kind of ground operations in Iowa and elsewhere that helped catapult him to the nomination in 2008.

While most Democratic White House hopefuls have made their intentions clear by now, a handful of others share Biden's slower strategy.

Beto O'Rourke, who shot to Democratic stardom with his narrow defeat in last year's Texas Senate race, says he'll make a decision before the end of the month. O'Rourke will headline a march in his hometown of El Paso Monday night, about a mile away from where Trump will be holding a re-election campaign rally.

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg also plans to make a decision in February. The billionaire made a campaign-style stop in New Hampshire last month and headlined a climate change event last week in Florida, another crucial primary state.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders hasn't said when he'll decide whether to launch a second presidential campaign. But he's kept making high profile appearances, including delivering a rebuttal to Trump's State of the Union address last week.

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Beaumont reported from Des Moines, Iowa. Follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC and Tom Beaumont at http://twitter.com/tombeaumont

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