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Witcover: Biden nears 2020 presidential race as middle-roader

Members of the United Steelworkers Local 8888 union held a lunch celebrating former Vice President Joe Biden before he greeted Newport News Shipbuilding workers outside of the 46th Street gate.

As former Vice President Joe Biden edges his way toward declaring his presidential candidacy for 2020, two prospective Democratic challengers have handed him political gifts.

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown have suddenly abandoned their own chances for the nomination.

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In so doing, they have narrowed the competition of the most experienced and well-regarded contenders and enhanced Mr. Biden's hope to be the candidate of the party's broad moderate-to-liberal constituency. Both Messrs. Bloomberg and Brown were considered to be in the same ideological lane for the nomination.

Meanwhile, four progressive women senators — Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kamala Harris of California, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York — among others are vying to take on declared entrant Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the more progressive lane.

Mr. Biden himself has had a long political career of leading liberal causes, especially in the areas of workers' rights, protection of women and children and civil rights, enabling him to compete also for that expanding Democratic flock.

His early strenuous opposition to school busing in his home state of Delaware in the 1970s, however, has already generated criticism of that prospect.

Joining the 2020 Democratic presidential competition will mark Mr. Biden's third bid to be the party's nominee after weak showings in the 1988 and 2008 races. But his subsequent eight-year performance as one of the nation's most involved and effective vice presidents under President Barack Obama has elevated him to early frontrunner for the next nomination in most polls.

He seemed poised in 2015 to enter the 2016 presidential race when family tragedy struck and brought the death of his elder son, Beau. After much soul-searching, Joe Biden bowed out, reporting from the Rose Garden with Mr. Obama at his side, that the grieving process that still consumed him "doesn't respect or much care about things like filing deadlines or primaries and caucuses."

By this time, though, two veteran political aides had finished a draft 2,500-word announcement of candidacy, quoted two years later in a short, touching book by Mr. Biden on the wrenching loss of Beau.

He wrote that the abandoned campaign would have been based on one very basic principle: "We're one America, bound together in this great experiment equality and opportunity and democracy. And everyone — and I mean everyone — is in on the deal."

He went on: "We had to speak to those who were left behind. They had to know we got their despair. ... We also had to speak to folks who were doing well. ... We had to remind corporate America and Wall Street that just taking care of themselves and their shareholders wasn't good enough. They had a responsibility to their workers, their communities and their country, too. ... This wasn't just about profits and economics. This was about the social stability of this nation."

The intended message was written nearly four years ago, but it can stand for the campaign Joe Biden appears poised to begin today, as well as an answer to Beau's plea made to him near his own last days: "You've got to promise me, Dad, that you're going to be all right."

His father replied then: "I'm going to be OK, Beau," adding in the book, "but that was not enough for him." “No, Dad,” he said. "Give me your word as a Biden," a phrase this father often used in addressing fellow Delawareans who knew him best, and took as guarantee they could take his word to the bank.

Whether that word, and all the thousands of others he may utter over the next year or more, will eventually bring Joe Biden to the Oval Office in his own right will depend on his own performance, as well as many yet unseen circumstances.

And, of course, whether Donald Trump will be around to try his formula of smear and gutter politics against a Democrat who has lived a long and honorable life far different from his own.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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