When Vice President Biden arrives in South Carolina on Friday to headline a sold-out dinner for state Democrats, here's what you can expect to go down:
Biden will stoke speculation that he wants to run for president in 2016 by pressing the flesh in the first-in-the-South primary state. He will show himself to be on a first-name basis with many of the local politicians and county activists who will line up to greet him. They will gush over his attributes - genuine, down-to-earth, rock solid on the issues. As Dick Harpootlian, the state party chairman, put it, "We're tickled pink to have him."
Yet by the time he leaves, the reality of being Joe Biden will sink in: A promotion to the top job is a long shot, at best.
For Biden, who, his family and advisers say, is weighing whether to run in 2016, several paradoxes are at work. He is beloved by grass-roots Democrats but mainly as the avuncular No. 2 to Barack Obama. From the South Carolina Low Country to the Iowa heartland, there are no signs - none yet, at least - of a "Draft Joe" movement.
Biden clearly has the experience and gravitas to ascend to the presidency, but many Democrats say he may have been in Washington too long (since 1973) to win an election. He is President Obama's governing partner yet is rarely seen as Obama's heir apparent. For that mantle, and for the nomination, he is likely to face stiff competition in the form of Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former secretary of state and, according to most everyone, the 2016 front-runner.
"Because she's a Democrat, I can't say she's the elephant in the room, but she's certainly the dominant donkey," said Robert Shrum, a veteran Democratic presidential campaign strategist. "If she decides to run, it'll be almost impossible to prevent her from being the nominee. If she doesn't run, I think Biden's the odds-on favorite."
Yet even then, "he will not have it easy," said Donald Fowler, a former Democratic National Committee chairman and South Carolina native who is close to the Clintons.
Indeed, Biden remains a distant presence in the 2016 field. One Democratic politician who is considering a presidential run has focused his deliberations with advisers entirely on how, or even whether, to challenge Clinton. According to one of the advisers, Biden has not entered into the equation.
At some point, Biden will be making some calculations of his own.
"It's like five-dimensional chess," said Ted Kaufman, a longtime confidant of Biden's who was appointed to succeed Biden in the Senate after he was elected vice president in 2008. "You can sit around and think about it and dream about it, but really, it'll get decided later, and that's when it'll get serious."