- The Washington Times - Monday, December 14, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The waiting game continued last week to see if Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s son, Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, will run for his father’s former Senate seat.

It’s widely expected Mr. Biden will be a candidate, but he is taking his time - after returning home in October from a year’s tour of duty in Iraq - just to re-connect with his family and weigh all the imponderables a Senate race will pose in what could be a tough election cycle for Democrats.

His decision is a critical one for his party when more than half a dozen Democratic Senate seats are up for grabs in 2010 and the vice president’s open seat is one of the most vulnerable on the list.

Delaware’s at-large Rep. Michael N. Castle, a Republican, announced his candidacy two months ago, and the latest head-to-head poll shows him leading Mr. Biden by six points. Now many political analysts and more than a few Democrats wonder what’s taking Mr. Biden so long to toss his hat in the ring.

“There’s been a lot of talk in recent days about Democrats retiring and dropping out of certain races, but if Biden opts not to run, that might be the biggest sign of trouble ahead for Democrats,” analyst Aaron Blake writes in the Hill newspaper.

“Should we be reading more into Biden’s reticence?” asks the National Journal’s Hotline.

But Mr. Biden isn’t being pushed into a hasty decision and has been telling reporters “there will be time to make a decision” and leaving it at that.

Indeed, veteran election handicappers say Mr. Biden can take all the time he wants. “There probably isn’t much of a need for Biden to establish his campaign early since he doesn’t need to build name recognition and certainly won’t encounter any trouble raising money,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior elections analyst at the Cook Political Report. It goes without saying that Mr. Biden will be assured of having the White House’s full support; plenty of strategy advice from his experienced father, who won the seat seven times; and, of course, timely campaign appearances from President Obama.

Ms. Duffy thinks he will run, “but on the very unlikely chance Biden doesn’t run, it will probably be timing. He was in Iraq for a year and has a young family. It just might not be the right time for him personally,” she told me.

Still, Democratic eyebrows were raised last week when Ms. Duffy’s boss, highly respected election analyst Charlie Cook, suggested Mr. Biden should pass up the 2010 election, stay in his present office and run for higher office later, when the political climate will be better suited for the Democrats.

“Why does he want to run the risk of running against somebody who’s got experience all over him in a Republican year? Why does he want to do this?” Mr. Cook asked reporters rhetorically.

“Beau Biden can walk into a Senate seat, absolutely without a scratch, within the next two or four years,” Mr. Cook said. “If I were him, I would not run.”

To be sure, Mr. Castle will be a formidable challenger to the far less experienced 40-year-old Mr. Biden. The 70-year-old former governor, who won statewide re-election to his ninth term in the House last year with 61 percent of the vote, is a political moderate whose appeal cuts across party lines.

After winning elections for more than a quarter of a century, Mr. Castle remains the state’s most popular political leader, drawing support from Republicans, Democrats and independents alike.

Democratic observers in the state thought Mr. Castle’s vote against the Democrats’ health care bill in the House would hurt him, but the latest polls suggest it did not. A statewide survey by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic polling firm, showed him leading Mr. Biden by 45 percent to 39 percent.

Moreover, the Democratic PPP poll also showed that Mr. Castle has better favorable-unfavorable ratings than his younger rival - 55 percent to 28 percent compared to 43 percent to 35 percent for Mr. Biden.

Notably, Mr. Castle has an especially strong 52-23 percent lead among independents and even draws 20 percent of the Democrats.

It is numbers like these that may be giving Mr. Biden pause to think 2010 may not be his year.

“Both men are extremely popular, and while the state certainly leans Democratic, the contest looks extremely competitive. Given the probability that the broad political environment will favor the GOP [next year], Castle has a very slight edge,” elections tracker Stuart Rothenberg told newsletter subscribers last month.

Indeed, the only Senate race Mr. Rothenberg puts in the “leaning to GOP takeover” column is Delaware’s open seat.

If you are searching for broader clues as to the political lay of the land as we turn into the 2010 election year, it isn’t just the vice president’s former seat that is in danger, but maybe the president’s Illinois seat, too, which five-term Rep. Mark Steven Kirk, a Republican moderate who appeals to Democrats, threatens to tip into the Republican column.

The latest polls are calling that race a dead heat.

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.

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