JOE BIDEN still wants to run for president. At least, his friends tell me, a big part of him does. He talks about the prospect readily, whenever reporters or voters ask. He doesn't sound as if the ambition that fired him to run when he was 44 or 64 has diminished at 72.
"What would drive me to do it would be if I thought that I could do it better than anybody else," he said in December.
"I think this thing is wide open on both sides," he said in January.
"That's a family, personal decision that I'm going to make sometime at the end of the summer," he told reporters in Iowa last month.
After 46 years in politics, Biden's earned the right to be taken seriously. Despite his gaffes - some of which fall into the "Kinsley gaffe" category of revealing politically unpalatable truths - he's turned in a solid performance as vice president. He's negotiated fiscal compromises with balky Republican leaders in Congress. He's massaged the egos (and, who knows, perhaps the shoulders) of foreign leaders from Iraq to Japan. A CNN poll last week found that 71 percent of Democratic voters think highly of him.
But Biden has one obvious problem: Hillary Rodham Clinton. The same CNN poll found that Clinton was the first choice of 62 percent of Democratic voters, against only 15 percent for Biden and 10 percent for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (who says she isn't running).
The vice president doesn't want to be seen as a mere understudy in his party's presidential race. He's cast his not-quite-impending decision as a matter of his own future, not a choice contingent on Clinton's fortunes.
"It's about whether he has a contribution to make," said Ted Kaufman, one of Biden's oldest friends and advisers. Not a question of whether Clinton falters? "No," Kaufman told me.
But it's too late; whether he likes it or not, Biden is already Clinton's understudy - the backup player, there to step in only if the first string falters. Biden's own timetable - his stipulation that he doesn't need to make a decision before Labor Day - makes that all the more certain.
Clinton is expected to announce her candidacy formally next month. But she's been building a campaign apparatus - a staff, a strategy, a super PAC, potential donors - for months. She's already been endorsed by more than half the Democrats in the U.S. Senate. With every month that goes by, she has added to that juggernaut. That means fewer potential supporters remain on the fence to be wooed by any rival candidate, including Biden.
At this point, the main cheerleader for a Biden presidency is a voluble former South Carolina Democratic Party chairman, Dick Harpootlian, who laid out the rationale for a run to the Washington Post this way: "He ain't got no email problems. He ain't got no foundation problems. What you see with Joe is what you get."
There's also an amateur Draft Joe Biden website, launched last week by a former Obama volunteer named William Pierce. As of Tuesday afternoon, its Draft Biden petition had collected 4,004 signatures and 62 Facebook likes - hardly a tidal wave. Its pitch for the vice president touts "his passion, joy and knowledge."
All of which Biden undeniably possesses - and none of which adds up to a serious chance against Clinton. He flamed out as a presidential candidate in the 1988 campaign, when he faced charges that his speeches were plagiarized, and 2008, when he didn't make it past the Iowa caucuses. And, yes, in much of the country - certainly among late-night comics - he's thought of as an aging liberal goofball, not an imposing statesman. That kind of image isn't easy to erase.
Once she announces, Clinton plans to launch a series of speeches to build a rationale for her candidacy. Biden will still be confined in the role of the Obama administration's energetic salesman, an honorable job but one that won't establish his claim to the nomination.
But if Clinton runs into trouble - if she has health problems, or legal problems, or any other kind of problems - her party is going to need another candidate, and fast. Biden is his party's natural fallback.
A Quinnipiac poll this month found that with Clinton out of the race, Biden would be the front-runner with 35 percent; Warren polled 25 percent. No other Democrat has attracted significant interest or support, even among political insiders.
Biden's flirtation with candidacy isn't delusional. It isn't just the self-flattery of a politician who long thought he ought to be president. Undeniably, however, he's the second choice - and there's nothing wrong with that. By taking on that thankless role, he's doing his party a big service.