Here’s a fair bet for how the run-up to 2016 will play out. A handful of prominent Democratic figures on the national scene, starting with an aging if still-eager Vice President Joe Biden, will begin to lay the groundwork for a presidential run in the usual way: by traveling to Iowa and New Hampshire, fundraising, and lining up potential backers. Biden, for his part, will effectively kick off his bid with a featured address at Bank of America stadium on Thursday.
Through all of this maneuvering, Hillary Rodham Clinton, the only true giant in the Democratic Party apart from President Obama, will play the coy heroine of 2016. She won’t be at the convention this week, and she plans to retire from public service in January. But the former first lady and senator and current secretary of State will likely keep a hand in by forming some kind of an international foundation on women’s issues, continuing what has been a grand passion of her career. Meanwhile, she’ll issue quasi-Shermanesque denials about her interest in the presidency, probably well into 2015. All of which will only make the clamor grow stronger for her return.
Apart from Clinton and Biden, in the view of many veteran Democratic strategists and pollsters, the party has just a few national figures. Several will deliver speeches at the convention. Chief among them is Martin O’Malley, the popular and handsome Maryland governor who is trying to steer the party back to the left. O’Malley, the chair of the Democratic Governors Association who has already formed his own political action committee, complains that Democrats have ceded the agenda to the Republicans since Ronald Reagan declared government to be the problem. “Too many of us started trying to adopt their message and repackage it as our own,” O’Malley told National Journal this summer.
Another key prospect is New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, although in Charlotte he appears to be trying not to be the liberal lightning rod his father, Mario, became in 1984 with an electrifying speech. The younger Cuomo will attend the convention only on the last day, and he won’t speak. Still, he is winning plaudits for his tough handling of his state’s budget and Legislature.
There is also Virginia’s former governor, Sen. Mark Warner, whose smarts, presence, and successful IT business career have continued to generate buzz despite his seeming avoidance of the limelight since 2008. Warner doesn’t plan to speak in Charlotte, but he’ll be here.
Other prospective stars are hoping that speaking gigs will kick off their national careers: Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a popular small-business advocate who has bipartisan appeal in a purple state; this year’s keynote speaker, Julian Castro, the Stanford- and Harvard-educated mayor of San Antonio, Texas, who could possibly capture the burgeoning Latino vote; and California Attorney General Kamala Harris, of Indian-American and African-American heritage, who is one of the Obama campaign’s national chairs.
Biden, despite his age (he would be 74 in 2016) and the failure of his previous presidential campaigns, could be a strong 2016 contender based on his record as one of the most influential vice presidents ever. “I can’t think of a better messenger for the middle class,” says Jay Campbell of Hart Research, a Democratic polling firm. Unless, of course, Clinton becomes that messenger herself. If so, the party will likely still be hers to command.