Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to an Atlanta synagogue on Thursday evening comes as he continues to ponder a presidential bid. What he’ll find in Georgia is the same fraught political dynamic that awaits him in much of the rest of the country.
The state’s Democratic establishment is firmly behind front-runner Hillary Clinton, though some elected Democrats indicated privately they were wavering about her candidacy.
Many rank-and-file Democrats have an emotional attachment to Biden, who wears his heart on his sleeve. And a fervent group of activists are urging him to jump into the race because they fear a scandal-scarred Clinton cannot win in November 2016.
“He can truly speak to issues that are important to the progressive community,” said Ashlyn Shockley, a 31-year-old Atlanta nonprofit leader. “And I know that Joe Biden would help continue President Obama’s impact here.”
An official reason for Biden’s visit to Buckhead’s Ahavath Achim synagogue is the Obama administration nuclear deal with Iran, a touchy subject within the city’s divided Jewish community. But the subtext will be whether he’ll end months of anxiety within his party and decide whether to jump into the race.
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He’s swinging through Atlanta a day after a trip to South Florida, which has long been fertile fundraising territory for Democratic presidential candidates, though his aides won’t say whether the trip will pave the way to a presidential run.
Time is running short. Serious talk of Biden mounting a campaign broke barely a month ago - with reports saying his late son Beau Biden urged him to run. The first Democratic presidential debate is scheduled for Oct. 13 in Nevada. The deadline to land on the primary ballots in some early-voting states is set for November and December.
Though Clinton has struggled with questions about classified material on her personal email server while she was secretary of state, she remains the heavy favorite for the nomination.
Since entering the race in April, Clinton has built a network of supporters and donors in Georgia and across the country. Her campaign claims she’s locked up as many as one-fifth of the party’s superdelegates, party insiders whose votes count toward sealing the nomination.
“We all love Uncle Joe,” said Tharon Johnson, an Atlanta Democratic strategist who ran President Barack Obama’s campaign in the South in 2012. “But the Clinton campaign has built up a good organization here in the state financially.”
Atlanta-area U.S. Reps. Hank Johnson, John Lewis and David Scott all announced support for Clinton’s campaign as soon as she entered the race. The state’s fourth congressional Democrat, Rep. Sanford Bishop of Albany, said through a spokesman he is “favorably impressed” with Clinton.
State House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams has already become a key surrogate for Clinton’s campaign in Georgia. And Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has talked of laying the groundwork for a Clinton candidacy for at least three years.
“I committed to her, and I’m going to honor my commitment,” Reed said.
One of the leaders of Clinton’s Georgia network is Gordon Giffin, a former U.S. Ambassador to Canada under President Bill Clinton who has bundled donations for Hillary Clinton and hosted an Atlanta fundraiser for her earlier this year. He said he’s long admired Biden, but does not see him as a threat to Clinton.
“I suspect he won’t run because I don’t see - there’s no real void for him to fill,” said Giffin, who said no donors in Georgia have warned him they would switch teams if Biden takes the plunge. “I don’t know why he’d get in unless he saw a void.”
Other long-time Democratic donors are in tough spots. Daniel Halpern, the chief executive of Atlanta-based Jackmont Hospitality, helped raise money for Biden’s son Beau and backed Obama over Clinton in the 2008 race. But he signed on earlier this year with Clinton - he’s one of her top “Hillblazer” fundraising bundlers - despite his fondness for Biden.
“I’m gonna have some good friends there” with Biden if he runs, Halpern said. “But at the end of the day, I made a commitment. And at the end of the day, I’ve got to honor my commitment.”
He said Biden would make “an outstanding candidate.” But, he added, “the later you get in, the harder it is to build an apparatus, hire people.”
It’s also hard to say what niche Biden would fill in the field.
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont has staked out ground to Clinton’s left, drawing huge crowds and seeing his poll numbers rise with pledges to expand Social Security, shift to a “Medicare-for-all” health care system and make all public universities tuition-free. Other Democratic contenders, including former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, have failed to gain traction.
Biden would have big name recognition, but he would court the same establishment voters and donors that Clinton has been working for months.
The uncertainty in the field is driving people like Paul Troop, a 73-year-old former journalist and public relations specialist, to urge Biden to take the plunge soon. Troop and his wife head up the Draft Biden campaign in Georgia, and they plan to maintain a quiet presence at his Thursday speech.
“There’s growing support for him in Georgia. There’s no question about that,” said Troop, who said hundreds of Georgia residents have recently signed a petition urging Biden to run.
“A lot of people see him as a good compromise candidate between the various candidates in the field,” he said. “We believe that Hillary would make an excellent candidate. But you need a Plan B just in case.”
Staff Writer Katie Leslie contributed to this report.