Joe Biden: God love him, but now's probably not the time — or place.
That's the signal some top Texas Democrats are sending as the vice president apparently moves closer to a presidential run, potentially complicating former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's path to the White House. There is deep reservoir of good will for Biden in Texas, the Democrats say, but his late entrance into the race would do little to blunt Clinton's advantage in a state where her political network runs deep.
"It is going to be very hard, if not impossible, for him to mount a strong campaign in this state" less than five months before the primary, said Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party. "That would be difficult even if he didn’t have to contend with the fact that Hillary has some old, old ties, particularly in the Hispanic community."
Asked if he knows of any prominent Texas Democrats waiting to see whether Biden runs, Hinojosa replied, "I am not hearing any buzz — not one, not one bit."
Biden's decision, which could come as early as this weekend, is providing a bit of a gut check for some Clinton backers in Texas. With its earlier-than-usual primary and massive delegate count, the state is seen as a possible firewall in case she does not decisively emerge from the first round of nominating contests.
"Texas is obviously Hillary’s to win," said Manuel Medina, chairman of the Bexar County Democratic Party. "On March 1 ...she could in effect win the Democratic nomination with a strong showing in Texas. I think that’s the strategy now."
Whether Biden or U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., could upend that strategy remains to be seen. A poll released Sept. 23 by Crosswind Media and Public Relations found Clinton with a commanding lead among Texas Democrats, earning 53 percent of their support. Sanders came in second with 21 percent, while Biden placed third with 14 percent.
"I think if the primary happened now, he might clear 15 percent," the threshold to pick up delegates, said Matt Angle, one of the state's top Democratic strategists.
Local Democratic activists and leaders describe anecdotal support for Biden but few signs of a ready-to-go movement. They do see an opening for an alternative to Clinton. Her chief rival so far, Sanders, drew 5,500 and 8,000 people to July rallies in Dallas and Houston, respectively.
"I can tell you that there’s clearly interest in a candidate other than Hillary," said Lane Lewis, chairman of the Harris County Democratic Party. "Bernie's proved that, right?"
If Biden has a base in Texas, Democrats say, it may be among those who feel a deep loyalty to President Barack Obama and are concerned with preserving his legacy. Houston attorney Roland Garcia said Wednesday he is among a group of early Obama supporters in Texas waiting to see whether Biden runs.
"I think he would have a large following," said Garcia, a top fundraiser for Obama during the 2008 race. "He doesn’t have the head start as secretary Clinton [does], but he would get his fair share of the Democratic support and vote in terms of troops on the ground plus financial support."
Biden would have to assemble — quickly — an organization in a state where Clinton is already laying down markers.
The Draft Biden 2016 super PAC, the main group laying the groundwork for a bid by the vice president, has about 75 volunteers throughout Texas, according to spokeswoman Sarah Ford. Clinton's campaign, by comparison, says it has thousands of volunteers in the state. Sanders' campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment about its organization in Texas.
Biden would also have to compete with the Clinton money machine in Texas, fueled by a hierarchy of fundraisers topped by 10 "Hillblazers" who've committed to bundling at least $100,000 for her campaign. Federal records show no one from Texas has contributed to the pro-Biden super PAC, though it has yet to disclose its donors for the period during which speculation about Biden's plans intensified.
There are some signs Biden's supporters are looking to make deeper inroads in Texas. Party leaders across the state have been receiving emails from James Rigdon, the national outreach director of the super PAC, requesting brief, one-on-one calls to "go over our progress in detail." "We are very keen on mobilizing efforts in Texas and greatly appreciate the opportunity to connect," Rigdon wrote in at least one of the emails.
Hinojosa was doubtful Tuesday that Biden could assemble a winning campaign less than three months before the Iowa caucuses and on the cusp of the end-of-the-year holidays, when "politics basically stops." Other Texas Democrats acknowledged the 2016 race would not be Biden's first rodeo.
“I think there’s still time," said Carol Donovan, who chairs the Dallas County Democratic Party. "I think Biden has been in this business long enough that he knows in order to win, he has to have the organization."
Clinton's highest-profile Texas backers have struck a deferential tone. Stumping for Clinton in August in Iowa, U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio said a bid for the White House was a "decision that he has to make — whether he wants to commit the energy and the resources to making a run for president." After announcing her endorsement of Clinton last week, former Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Wendy Davis offered a similar assessment, saying "obviously the vice president is going through a very thoughtful process right now about whether that make sense for himself and his family."
"He's obviously shown himself to be incredibly committed to this country," Davis told reporters. "He's given many years of service to it, and if he does run, I welcome his presence in the race, as I know that Hillary does, and I expect they'll have a vibrant discussion when debate season comes."
Among others solidly behind Clinton in the Lone Star State, particularly those raising money for her campaign, Biden is not being treated as much of a threat, if even a factor.
Asked whether a Biden run would shake up presidential politics in the predominantly Hispanic Rio Grande Valley, Alonzo Cantu, known as Clinton's biggest booster there, responded flatly, "I don't think it will make a difference here."
"He ran for president twice before, and he ran against Hillary in '08 and got one percent of the vote in Iowa. I have a hard time believing he’ll have much different results running this time," said Garry Mauro, the former land commissioner who led Clinton's campaign in Texas in 2008.
Carrin Patman, a Houston attorney who is one of Clinton's top fundraisers in Texas, said Biden is "obviously beloved here like he is everywhere," but she believes the former secretary of state already has the state "sewn up." Patman added, "I don't see Texas being in play for anybody but her in the Democratic primary."
Clinton will get her latest chance to flex her Texas muscle during a trip to the state next week that could come just days after Biden makes up his mind. On Thursday, Clinton is set to visit Houston for a fundraiser and San Antonio for a speech aimed at Hispanic voters. Patman, who is hosting Clinton in Houston, said Monday that preparations for the event are "going extremely well."