COLUMBIA, S.C. — He's sought the presidency twice before, only to fall woefully short. Now, in what many people would consider the autumn of their own lives, Joe Biden is weighing whether he'll make a third and final run.
His travel, his calendar and interviews with supporters suggest he's getting in position to seek the 2016 Democratic nomination.
He's taken pains to court activists in the early primary states. Earlier this month, he wooed Democratic activists in South Carolina. In January, he invited key Democrats from New Hampshire to be his guests alongside family and close friends at the small ceremony where he was sworn in for a second term as vice president. He made the rounds at a pre-inaugural party for Democrats from Iowa. Those states go 1-2-3 in voting for a nominee, and Biden may have jumped the gun with a revealing slip of the tongue at the Iowa party. "I'm proud to be president of the United States," he said.
And he's maintaining close ties to key Democratic constituencies, meeting in the last two weeks alone with African-American and Asian-American interest groups.
Friends and advisers insist Biden hasn't made a decision on whether he'll run. They say he's working mainly on helping President Barack Obama, mindful that any Democratic candidate's fortunes will rise or fall on the Obama administration's performance.
"He has the experience, the relationships and at the right time obviously he'd make a wonderful president," said Miami developer Michael Adler, Biden's 2008 national finance chairman. "Right now, he's totally focused on being the best vice president that he can be."
Yet Biden clearly would love to be president, a job he first sought 24 years ago and last sought four years ago. And Democrats close to him know it.
"They're always looking at the landscape," said Lou D'Allesandro, a veteran state senator and Democratic operative from New Hampshire who was invited to the vice president's residence for the private swearing-in. "And I've got to assume he'll be back."
The vice presidency was long a dead-end job. Lyndon Johnson was shut out by John F. Kennedy. Harry Truman didn't even know about work on the atomic bomb unto he moved into the top job. John Nance Garner famously said of his number two spot under Franklin D. Roosevelt that the job wasn't worth a pitcher of warm spit, or some other bodily fluid, depending on the story.
But ever since Jimmy Carter gave Walter Mondale a real portfolio of work, vice presidents have been more partners than forgotten understudies.
The high-octane Biden, with his long personal ties in the Senate, has been a key partner for Obama, who was elected before he finished his first term in the Senate and has had frosty relations with Congress. It was Biden who shepherded the administration's 2009 economic stimulus package through Congress. It was Biden who earlier this year helped broker a budget deal to avoid pitching the government off a fiscal cliff.
"His engagement, enthusiasm and energy is there," said the Rev. Michael McBride, a California pastor who was among a group of faith leaders who met recently with Biden to hash out plans to keep pushing for new gun laws.
But history shows that the path from second in command to the top is no sure thing: Just 14 vice presidents have ascended to the presidency, more than half of them after the president's death. Five have been elected.
And Biden finds himself eclipsed by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose supporters have launched Ready for Hillary, a political action committee aimed at convincing her to run and supporting her if she does. No similar Biden effort exists.
"Our field is simply frozen in place until Secretary Clinton makes her decision," said Sue Dvorsky, a former chairwoman of the Iowa Democratic Party. "I wouldn't be surprised to see the vice president full steam ahead. He is the sitting vice president, and he's not just any vice president, he's been a full partner. But (Clinton) would be the emotional front-runner and the political front-runner from the minute she declares. ... I just don't see anyone who could beat her."
Yet the "inevitable" label has been misapplied to past candidates, including Clinton, who was viewed as unstoppable heading into 2008.
"We don't have a President Gary Hart or a President Mario Cuomo," said Lachlan McIntosh, a South Carolina political consultant, referring to the former Colorado senator and former New York governor. Each, at one point, was widely presumed to be the party's presidential nominee in 1988. "The conventional wisdom three years away from an election doesn't always play out."
There are caveats to the Clinton-as-certain-winner scenario. For one, she may have been damaged by the terrorist attacks last September in Benghazi, Libya, while she was secretary. For another, she's largely been off the political circuit during her term as secretary of state, while Biden has worked the campaign trail for fellow Democrats.
"Joe's been here. He's maintained the political contacts," said Dick Harpootlian, the outgoing chair of the South Carolina party, who a month ago golfed with Biden on South Carolina's Kiawah Island, a frequent Biden family vacation spot. "I haven't heard anything or seen anything from the Clinton camp."
"It was Vice President Joe Biden who took the bull by the horns when Barack Obama said, 'Joe, let's get it done,'" said Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C. When Biden headlined Clyburn's annual fish fry party recently, the iconic Clyburn introduced the vice president as "a great friend to South Carolina."
While Clinton is still an open question, Biden's candidacy faces other factors, including his age. He'd be 73 in 2016 and would celebrate his 74th birthday two weeks after the election. That's older than Ronald Reagan, who at 73 was the oldest president ever to be sworn in when he took office for a second term in 1985, after a campaign in which Democrats sought to use his age as a factor.
Friends say Biden is in enviable health, routinely logging long days.
While he trails Clinton in early polls of Democratic sentiment, he's well ahead of less-known and younger potential rivals such as Govs. Andrew Cuomo of New York and Martin O'Malley of Maryland.
"Clinton has a rock-solid hold on the hearts of Democratic voters at this point," said Peter Brown, an assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. But if Clinton doesn't run, Brown said, "none of the other younger potential candidates for the Democratic nomination currently has anything approaching widespread support from party voters."
Ted Kaufman, a longtime aide who was appointed to finish out Biden's Senate term, said Biden would decide about a third run after a methodical study of factors, including the wishes of his family."It's like an eight-dimensional chess game," Kaufman said. "It would take a day just to list the questions that you want to answer before you make this decision."
Biden has said he's in no hurry. "There's a whole lot of reasons why I wouldn't run. I haven't made that decision. And I don't have to make that decision for a while," he told CNN in January.