Posted: May 4, 2006


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Ask 98 U.S. senators to make a wish and it could be for a reputation as the third senator from New Hampshire.

The state that holds the first presidential primary makes presidents, so it pays to be friends with New Hampshire. It is one of the ways that U.S. Sen. John F. Kerry got to the Democratic nomination in 2004 -- as a familiar figure from neighboring Massachusetts.

U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. is one of the Democrats making moves to run in 2008, but his political attention outside of Delaware is not turned northward for the time being.

Instead, Joe Biden wants to be the third senator from South Carolina.

The state may not be the brightest in the presidential constellation, but it has its own luster. After Iowa holds its caucuses and New Hampshire its primary, South Carolina typically votes in a cluster of states (including Delaware) a week later, giving it timely influence as the first Southern voice to weigh in.

George W. Bush used South Carolina as a political firewall in 2000 to make his presidential ambitions and break John McCain's on the Republican side. John Edwards, who claimed "third senator" status because his home state is North Carolina, parlayed the credibility he gained from carrying South Carolina in 2004 into the vice presidential nomination on the Democratic side.

"South Carolina is key. It's not Iowa and New Hampshire but probably right behind. It's going to be one of the gauntlets," said Edward E. "Ted" Kaufman, a past Democratic national committeeman and close political adviser to Biden.

In fact, South Carolina's significance may increase in 2008. The Democrats are thinking about shifting their presidential calendar to highlight a state with more of a diverse population than Iowa or New Hampshire -- both better than 90 percent white -- and South Carolina could join them in the early window of voting.

Biden appears to be gambling on it. He has not been popping into South Carolina the way he turns up in Sussex County, but he certainly is establishing a presence.

"I have some crazy affinity to South Carolina," he said during a speech to the Spartanburg County Democrats about six weeks ago.

Biden was in the state as recently as Monday for a political event known as the Galivants Ferry Stump, which seems like a rich relation to the Sussex County Democratic Beach Jamboree at Cape Henlopen State Park.

The stump meeting, which draws thousands to the site of a country store about 30 miles inland from Myrtle Beach, has been around since 1876 and kicks off the South Carolina Democrats' primary season every two years with bluegrass music, dozens of political speeches and chicken bog, a dish made with chicken, sausage and rice that is the local equivalent of a Sussex County chicken dinner.

Biden was introduced by retired U.S. Sen. Ernest F. "Fritz" Hollings, an old, old friend whose influence with the Democrats there is on par with Biden's here. Newspaper accounts say Hollings called Biden "the best prepared man to be president of the United States."   

Biden also spent three days in South Carolina in March -- a trip that was featured on C-SPAN's "Road to the White House" -- and he made sure to schedule a speech to the state's delegation during the Democratic national convention in Boston in 2004.

He brought U.S. Sen. Lindsay Graham, a South Carolina Republican, to Delaware in April to speak at a Biden Seminar, an ongoing series of private sessions for his supporters, usually about 400 of them. Even party lines cannot stop this courtship.

Perhaps most important of all, Biden went to South Carolina in 2003 for the funeral of Strom Thurmond, dead at 100, the Dixiecrat-turned-Republican senator regarded as a symbol of the Solid South for decade upon decade.

Not only did Biden attend, he was the surprising choice to give the eulogy. Although Thurmond was virtually his political opposite, they nevertheless had formed a charmed relationship on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

It was an unforgettable moment in South Carolina history. "Every place we went, people mentioned that," said Valerie Biden Owens, his sister who runs his campaigns and went with him on the trip in March.

At first impression, it is hard to figure how a Northeastern senator from a Democratic blue state could expect to resonate with Southern voters from a Republican red state, even Democratic voters. But this is essentially the way Biden broke into politics.

In 1972 when he was a 29-year-old upsetting U.S. Sen. J. Caleb Boggs, a Republican then holding the record as the longest serving statewide officeholder, Delaware was vigorously Republican. The congressional delegation was Republican, and so were the governor and the General Assembly. The lone statewide Democrat was the treasurer.

Biden nosed out Boggs by 4,000 votes, the vanguard of the state's quarter-century march to the Democratic column. No wonder he is undaunted by South Carolina.

"It's like being home," Biden said.

Biden is traveling to other Southern states as well to take soundings of his presidential chances. When Hillary Rodham Clinton tested her viability as a Democratic senatorial candidate in New York, she conducted a "Listening Tour," but this is Joe Biden. His rounds could be called a "Talking Tour."

His pitch to connect with the voters showcases his standing as the leading Democrat on foreign policy, champions the middle class that is getting pinched with $3-a-gallon gasoline, and criticizes the president for not uniting the country after terrorists exploited and exposed failings in national security on Sept. 11.

"We need to unite the country so it's not red and blue," Biden told the Spartanburg County Democrats in March.

"History will judge George Bush harshly, but not for the mistakes he made. They will hold him accountable for the opportunities he squandered . . . and put a generation in jeopardy. . . .

"We need to restore the middle class. The middle class is getting beaten and banged around. If the middle class is shrinking, the poor are in trouble. The rich will never take care of the poor."

There is as much reasoning as rhetoric to Biden's Southern swing. He says there is no sense getting to be president if the means to it is rallying the base and polarizing the country. A Democrat has to woo the South, even without counting on winning it.

"You may win the election, but I don't know how you then govern," Biden said. "My gamble here is, I'm spending more time in the Southern states than other people are."

Here in the spring of 2006, Biden is a long, long way from the White House, and the political analysts are split on how far it is. Stuart Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Political Report put him in the second tier of Democrats behind Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana and former Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia, but Chris Matthews of "Hardball" said Biden is "in the top of the pack."

To establish credibility, Biden has to do more than give speeches, even ones that may demonstrate an appeal with voters. He still has to plow through the arduous labors of assembling a campaign organization, proving he can raise money, devising a nationwide strategy and getting himself repeatedly to Iowa and New Hampshire so he does not crash and burn there.

South Carolina alone will not do it, although starting in the third major state does not hurt, according to Glenn C. Kenton, a former secretary of state who was a key adviser to Gov. Pierre S. "Pete" du Pont when he ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988.

"Nobody except a sitting vice president is a 50-50 shot to win the nomination, not even Hillary Clinton or John McCain," Kenton said. "You have to match your strategy against everybody else. You do have to piece it together. It's a lot of luck and a lot of long-shot play. It's like three- or four-dimensional chess."

Part of the unexpectedness of Biden's South Carolina focus is that he is traveling anywhere at all. When he decided against running for president in 2004, he said his wife Jill did not want him to. Now she does.

As Biden explains it, Jill told him at Christmastime as they were going to bed there would be a family meeting the next day about the 2008 race. Then she went to sleep. He was not happy that she was asleep, nor that the family appeared to be ganging up on him, but he got happy in a hurry when he heard what Jill had to say.

He said she told him, "'We decided, if you want to run, we're for it. I think you're the only one who can unite the country, and we're in trouble.' President Bush scares her. The decision was to go. My word -- it surprised me."

Next it was onward to gamble on a South Carolina surprise.