Biden: His Time?

News people like to stun their audiences, but it's hard to find much shock value in Sen. Joe Biden announcing he wants to run for president.

Interest in the Oval Office is hardly ever surprising in a senator, much less one who has grabbed for the brass ring before. Biden first made the rounds in Iowa in New Hampshire in 1985, right after Ronald Reagan's 49-state re-election landslide. Before a campaign meltdown drove him out in the summer of 1987, Biden was at least a co-frontrunner for the Democratic nomination with Michael Dukakis (who was nominated and plowed under by George H. W. Bush in 1988).

Biden has yet to mount a second bid, but "once a politician has the presidency in his blood the only cure for it is embalming fluid." That line comes from the late Rep. Morris Udall, a longtime congressman from Arizona who ran and lost in the 1976 Democratic primaries.

Neither was it unusual to see a candidate drop the veil on a TV talk show (in this case, CBS' Face the Nation). In fact, tossing in your hat on the tube has been in fashion at least since Ross Perot got his 1992 campaign rolling on CNN's Larry King Live.

The only really attention-grabbing thing Biden did was to confess his plans up front without the traditional bobbing and weaving about testing the waters and forming an exploratory committee. Biden's host, veteran CBS newsman Bob Schieffer, could scarcely contain his glee at such an unabashed acknowledgement of interest.

MR. SCHIEFFER: You said your intention at this point is to seek the nomination.

SEN. BIDEN: My intention is to seek the nomination. I know I'm supposed to be more coy with you. I know I'm supposed to tell you that I'm not sure. But, if, in fact, I think that I have a clear shot at winning the nomination by this November or December, then I'm going to seek the nomination...

MR. SCHIEFFER: Well, I'll say one thing, I think you made some news today, senator.

The presidency is supposed to be such an awe-inspiring office that any who wish to be on the List of the Mentioned tend to equivocate when asked about it. This is presumed to demonstrate respect for the responsibilities of the presidency, willingness to wait upon the will of the people and, of course, control over one's political libido.

But what about the timing? Isn't it awfully early to be raising one's colors for a presidential campaign? The answer is no, not really. We may be 43 months away from the next Inauguration Day, but if you want to be the focus of that ceremony, you need to make that known well in advance.

It's become not only acceptable but advisable to show one's interest in the Oval Office early. In fact, there are already several other Democrats who have let their names get out there in connection with the big job. They include both of the guys on the 2004 ticket and the wife of the last guy to win as a Democrat. That would be senators John Kerry, John Edwards and Hillary Clinton. Experience teaches that those with near-universal name recognition start with an immense advantage over others in the field, and Clinton has already proven herself a world-class fundraiser to boot.

If you explore a little further, you find tendrils of budding ambition around the likes of senators Evan Bayh of Indiana, Russell Feingold of Wisconsin and John Corzine of New Jersey (who is first running for governor of New Jersey). Lots of people are also interested in the new Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who's more likely to get on the 2008 ticket as a running mate.

And that's just to mention the Democrats in the Senate who may be hearing "Hail To the Chief" faintly on the breeze. Plenty of their Republican counterparts are also beckoned by 2008, the first presidential cycle since 1952 in which neither party has either an incumbent president nor an incumbent vice president in the running.

The Republicans attuned to this opportunity begin with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, whose every move is now analyzed in the context of a 2008 campaign. He has not spoken up as Biden has, but he has said he will leave the Senate in 2006, and references to his presidential plans have become routine.

It's also clear that Sen. John McCain, the GOP runner-up in 2000, is still thinking about being commander in chief. The same morning Biden was with Schieffer on CBS, McCain was on NBC's Meet the Press with Tim Russert, showing at least a little ankle.

McCain will be 72 in 2008, and there are younger men in the ranks. These include two of his supporters from 2000, senators Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, as well as senators George Allen of Virginia, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Sam Brownback of Kansas.

Perhaps it's the sheer size of this senatorial field — to say nothing of governors and others — that persuades Biden to be outspoken at this stage of the game. Still relatively youthful at 62, Biden was once a true wunderkind, winning a seat in the Senate over a Republican incumbent in a huge Republican year (1972). He was just four years out of law school and not quite yet 30. Before he took his oath of office, his wife and daughter were killed in a car crash.

Biden remarried, started a new family and got a reputation for his gift of gab, remarkable even in the Senate. He began running seriously for president at age 42. With the aid of Democratic pollster and consultant Patrick Caddell, he toured the rubber-chicken circuit, bringing party activists to their feet with an appeal to idealism.

But it all blew up in mid-1987, when a videotape emerged of a speech by the British Labor Party leader, a speech that contained elements Biden had appropriated for his own stump speech. There was another incident, also captured on tape, in which Biden lost his temper with a questioner at a public event.

Biden abruptly pulled out of the race and went back to Delaware. In a matter of months, he suffered a near-fatal aneurysm and came to regard his early exit from the presidential race as a break that may have saved his life.

These dramatic events give Biden the kind of compelling personal narrative that helps a candidate capture voters' imaginations. Perhaps this time around, Biden will combine that story with the kind of forthright, outspoken style suggested by his declaration of interest.