Biden Bid Might’ve Led to Battle for Minorities

Facing a spirited challenge from U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (Dem., Vt.) in Iowa and New Hampshire, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign has reminded her supporters that she will be better positioned to defeat Mr. Sanders once the primary fight moves to more racially diverse states, where polls show she has a large advantage over him among Blacks and Hispanics. But a late entry by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. into the Democratic contest could complicate Mrs. Clinton’s strategy, particularly if he were able to portray himself to minority voters as President Obama’s rightful heir.

There may be no more consequential element to a campaign by Vice President Biden. If he were able to loosen Mrs. Clinton’s grip on nonwhite voters by the time votes are cast in South Carolina, Nevada and the Southern states holding contests on Super Tuesday, it could set off a prolonged, bruising and expensive Democratic primary season. But interviews with Democratic strategists and elected officials, as well as polls of Democrats, suggest that it would not be easy for Vice President Biden to poach Blacks and Hispanics from Mrs. Clinton, who, along with former President Bill Clinton, remains highly popular with those voters. To do so, these Democrats say, Vice President Biden would need a measure of help—or, simply, luck. Mrs. Clinton would have to be seen as politically damaged for minority voters, and especially Blacks and Hispanic women, to switch their loyalties from a potential first female president to a white man. “If she acquits herself well on Oct. 22 and she does well in Iowa, I don’t think Vice President Biden getting in will be a big factor,” said Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, referring to the date for Mrs. Clinton’s testimony before the House panel investigating her use of a private email server as secretary of state. “But if something happens with these emails or she stumbles in Iowa, then it’s ‘Katy, bar the door.’ ” Other prominent Blacks Democrats questioned how much harm the email controversy could cause Mrs. Clinton.

“Blacks people are used to being attacked themselves,” said Representative Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, who said his constituents were more focused on economic opportunity and racial justice--or what he called “survival stuff.” Vice President Biden, he added, “only becomes significant if they see that she is faltering.” Polls show that Vice President Biden would probably compete for the same pool of Democratic voters as Mrs. Clinton. But he would not begin with significant support from minorities: A New York Times/CBS News Poll taken last month showed Mrs. Clinton with support from 52 percent of nonwhite voters, compared with 18 percent for Vice President Biden and 17 percent for Mr. Sanders. In his 2008 primary contest with Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Obama struggled at first to dislodge Blacks voters from their attachment to her family. But once he prevailed in Iowa and Blacks realized that Mr. Obama could be a winner, they rushed in his direction, eager to make history. In South Carolina, Mr. Obama gained a crucial upper hand by winning with a 28-point margin and crushing Mrs. Clinton among Blacks. Vice President Biden’s supporters in South Carolina say that the vice president has since become closely identified with Mr. Obama. “He is almost the face of the administration around here,” said the Rev. Joseph Darby, an influential African Methodist Episcopal pastor in Charleston. “The president has only made a few trips to South Carolina, but Joe is in and out all the time.” Mr. Darby said Mrs. Clinton still retained support but had failed to generate much enthusiasm. “The challenge is not just support, but energy,” he said.

Mrs. Clinton’s supporters question whether President Obama’s popularity is transferable to Vice President Biden, and pointedly note that Vice President Biden has a separate identity, and record.

“The problem Joe Biden has is that Joe Biden is not Barack Obama,” said Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina state representative who is backing Mrs. Clinton. “We have to have a conversation about mass incarceration,” he said. “And when the vice president was senator, he was the reason so many African-Americans were sent to prison, and are still there right now, for minor offenses. That’s a conversation we have to have. And I’m not sure he wants to go through that.” A spokeswoman for Vice President Biden, who insisted on anonymity to discuss campaign-related questions, said Vice President Biden had believed since the 1994 crime bill’s passage--it was signed into law by President Bill Clinton--that aspects of it, “like the three-strikes measure,” would not “function as their proponents intended.” Other elements, “like relief from mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent, first-time drug offenders,” she said, “didn’t go as far as he would have liked to improve the then-existing law and protect basic principles of fairness and justice.” In Nevada, where Mrs. Clinton dominated among Latino voters in the 2008 caucuses, Democrats say she has helped herself by aggressively organizing and by recruiting Hispanic leaders. But Vice President Biden has been a familiar face there as well, and Democratic officials there suggest that Vice President Biden would at least challenge Mrs. Clinton in minority constituencies that Mr. Sanders has so far been unable to reach. “If Biden gets in, it’s going to make the decision-making process more difficult for people,” said Lucy Flores, a former member of the Nevada State Assembly who is running for Congress next year. “They’ll feel like they have more options.” Mrs. Clinton’s supporters argue that her campaign has made minority voters a vital focus and that Hispanics, especially, have noticed. “They made it very clear that they understand that we’re appealing to a diverse state and that Latinos are going to play a key role here,” said Andres Ramirez, a strategist in Las Vegas, who noted that Mrs. Clinton’s first two Nevada hires were Hispanics and that she gave her first major campaign speech about immigration in the state. “Ethnic outreach is often considered a secondary priority of campaigns,” Mr. Ramirez said, “but when Hillary launched her campaign, she made it a primary concern.”

Democrats not committed to any candidate say that Vice President Biden faces the possibility of a window closing because of the organizational demands of the Nevada caucuses. “Does he have demonstrated successes in the Obama administration? Yes,” former Representative Steven Horsford said of Vice President Biden. “But time is running out. As he takes painstaking steps to decide, others are making the necessary inroads.”

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