Most Democrats tell you it’s too soon to start talking about it. Their focus, they say, has to be entirely on re-electing President Barack Obama.
But as they gathered in Charlotte for the Democratic National Convention, the truth is that some of them already have begun jockeying for position to run for the presidential nomination themselves in 2016. The speculation has started, too.
Will Vice President Joe Biden run? What about Secretary of State Hillary Clinton? Is there an unknown star in the speaking schedule who’s waiting to burst onto the national stage and into a campaign, as Barack Obama did as a Senate candidate giving the convention keynote speech in 2004? What about the senators who are making visits to breakfasts with delegations from early caucus and primary states?
The reason for the speculation is that Democrats assume that Obama will win a second term, and be ineligible to run again in 2016. The unspoken alternative is that he will lose. But that would take him out of the running in 2016, too.
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“I think it is way too early to have this conversation,’’ said Mo Elleithee, a national political consultant and spokesman for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential bid. “A week before the Democratic convention in 2004, most people had never even heard of Barack Obama. There’s so much that can be changed between now and then.’’
True, said Jim Williams, a polling analyst with Public Policy Polling, Democratic-leaning pollsters based in North Carolina. But that hasn’t stopped the firm from asking potential primary and caucus-goers in New Hampshire and Iowa about whom they like for 2016. It’s "just for fun," Williams said, "just to see where people’s heads are."
So far, potential Democratic voters overwhelmingly lean toward Clinton, Williams said. Fifty-five percent of those surveyed in mid-August in New Hampshire preferred the former first lady. Nine percent liked the prospect of Biden as the nominee in four years. It “might be instructive’’ that Clinton has such a dominant lead, Williams said. “There’s a deep sense that it’s her turn if she chooses to run.’’
“Win or lose – and I do think the president will prevail – the front-runners certainly have to be Secretary Clinton and Joe Biden," said Robin Rorapaugh, a political consultant based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who advised the Obama campaign in 2008.
If they have the right of first refusal – which itself is open to question in a party prone to first-time candidates – does either one even want it?
Neither Clinton nor Biden have said they do, although there was the recent gleeful suggestion from Republicans, including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, that Obama dump his gaffe-prone vice president and replace him with Clinton this time.
Age, though, might be the biggest reason for the two to decline another bid for the White House. Clinton would be 69 on Inauguration Day 2017, and Biden would be 73.
Plenty of younger potential contenders are emerging, although with Clinton and Biden out of the mix, Williams said, Public Policy Polling’s surveys show "kind of a jumble," led primarily by Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York.
Cuomo, 54, has sky-high approval ratings even among Republicans in his own state, and he made friends among progressive Democrats for his support of same-sex marriage in New York. Cuomo, who spoke at the 2000 and 2008 Democratic conventions, is avoiding the national spotlight and keeping a low profile at the convention.
New York voters gave him a 73 percent approval rating in a July poll by Quinnipiac University. The same survey, though, found that New Yorkers want him to stay in Albany. They prefer Clinton, their former senator, as president over Cuomo, Quinnipiac found.
His father, former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, has floated the idea of a White House bid for his son. But New Yorkers “clearly aren’t ready to talk yet about Andrew Cuomo and the White House in the same breath,’’ Maurice Carroll, the director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, said last month.
Several potential candidates are visiting convention delegations this week from states, such as Iowa and South Carolina, that vote early in the nominating process. They include Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, 52, and Mark Warner of Virginia, 57, as well as Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, 49. O’Malley is using his seat as the head of the Democratic Governors Association to make fundraising and political contacts.
Other governors barely register among New Hampshire and Iowa voters, including one of the standouts from the 2008 convention: Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, 56. He, too, visited the South Carolina, Arizona and Iowa convention delegations.
But look to statehouses for future contenders, political watchers advise: "A lot of those names are governors," Rorapaugh said. "We have been a party that traditionally looks to our governors for new faces and fresh leadership."
One other on the list: U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, 63, a darling of the left who’s battling Republican Sen. Scott Brown, 52, for the seat held formerly by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy. First, she has to win the Senate seat, though.
Another woman who’s getting plenty of mention among convention-goers: Clinton’s fellow New Yorker, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, 45, who’s been leading a national initiative aimed at getting more women involved in politics.