As Vice President Joseph R. Biden spends this week vacationing in South Carolina and mulling whether to get into the presidential race, he’s got to be thinking about the humiliating beatings he took in his two previous bids for the top job.
It’s a painful memory of campaigns that went off the rails early in the 1988 and 2008 presidential races and a poor track record mostly overlooked by unhappy Democrats clamoring for Mr. Biden to provide them an alternative to Hillary Rodham Clinton.
In his first presidential run, Mr. Biden was forced to quit the race in September 1987 after revelations that he plagiarized a portion of his stump speech and committed plagiarism in law school. He dropped out of the 2008 race after an embarrassing fifth-place finish in the Iowa caucuses with less than 1 percent of the vote.
Some political analysts say that, as far as Mr. Biden’s political prospects go, little has changed since his failed run in 2008, with the exception of the close ties to President Obama developed over the past six years.
“The only thing that makes him more viable this time around is President Obama’s coattails, and Clinton, as his former secretary of state, can also ride on those among Democrats, and there’s no certainty those coattails would help either of them during the general election,” said Lara Brown, a political science professor at George Washington University.
Still, the movement to draft Mr. Biden into the 2016 contest gained momentum in recent weeks amid Democrats’ deepening concerns about Mrs. Clinton, who is the party’s overwhelming front-runner but is steeped in scandal and increasingly distrusted by general election voters.
Following the death of eldest son Beau Biden on May 30 after a battle with brain cancer, the vice president began to send the clearest signals yet that he’s eyeing another presidential run. He reportedly had been encouraged to run by both his sons, Beau and Hunter Biden, including a deathbed request by Beau.
Mr. Biden, 72, is expected to make an announcement about his political future shortly after returning from South Carolina, where he is spending time away from Washington with his wife, Jill Biden.
Mr. Biden’s supporters extol his likability — a quality Mrs. Clinton lacks — and what they describe as his endearing candor, which his critics call a penchant for gaffes, and his Regular Joe persona and blue-collar roots that they say give the former U.S. senator from Delaware credibility to lead in the party’s fight against income inequality.
Officials at Draft Biden 2016 brushed aside questions about the vice president’s failed White House runs.
“Joe Biden was a United States senator for 36 years and has been vice president for six and a half years. If Vice President Biden decides to run, his record and life’s work will speak for itself,” said Sarah Ford, spokeswoman for Draft Biden 2016.
In 1987, Mr. Biden’s woes began when he was caught giving a speech at the Iowa State Fair that including passages lifted without giving credit from a speech by British politician Neil Kinnock. Mr. Biden had credited Mr. Kinnock when using the material in previous speeches, but did not do so at the fair or a few days later in an interview with the National Education Association.
In Mr. Kinnock’s speech, he asked: “Why am I the first Kinnock in a thousand generations to be able to get to university?” He then pointed to his wife in the audience, and added, “Why is Glenys the first woman in her family in a thousand generations to be able to get to university? Was it because all our predecessors were thick?”
At the fair, Mr. Biden said: “I started thinking as I was coming over here, why is it that Joe Biden is the first in his family ever to go to a university?” He pointed to his wife, and added: “Why is it that my wife, who is sitting out there in the audience, is the first in her family to ever go to college? Is it because our fathers and mothers were not bright? Is it because I’m the first Biden in a thousand generations to get a college and a graduate degree that I was smarter than the rest?”
The scandal worsened when Mr. Biden had to admit that he failed a class at Syracuse University College of Law because he committed plagiarism in a paper, which he blamed on an honest mistake in the use of citations. He retook the class and earned a B.
At the time, Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political science professor, told the Los Angeles Times that Mr. Biden’s plagiarism offense “completely eliminates him from consideration” for the nomination.
“A plagiarist can clearly not be in the White House,” he said.
Nearly 30 years later, Mr. Sabato was more forgiving, though he said there was no excuse for plagiarism.
He said a political “statute of limitation” had expired on the scandal.
“Ancient history — no one cares,” he said. “Biden has problems far more serious. He has little money, organization or rationale to run, especially considering he’d be 74 by Inauguration Day. He has had two feeble presidential bids, and the odds are considerable that he’d have a third if he ran now,” said Mr. Sabato.
In 2008 Mr. Biden failed to break out in a crowded field, which included Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama.
When Mr. Biden’s campaign washed out in the Iowa caucuses, he had raised just $3.19 million in the last quarter of 2007, compared with Mrs. Clinton’s $27.33 million in that quarter, Mr. Obama’s $23.52 million, Sen. John Edwards’ $13.9 million and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson’s $4.9 million.
Seven months later, Mr. Obama tapped Mr. Biden for his running mate.
Some Democratic voters who remain strong supporters of Mr. Obama see the vice president’s role over the past six years — on everything from health care reform to the economic stimulus package and numerous others priorities for the administration — as a net positive.
To some degree, Mr. Biden is a more appealing candidate than someone who has not held office in recent years or has otherwise faded from public view, according to experts on presidential politics.
“I think he’s got a little more credibility by virtue of the fact that Obama appears to hold him tight and value his counsel. It’s not like he’s been sitting at home hoping for another chance,” said Bruce Buchanan, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Austin who specializes in presidential politics and presidential campaigns.
If Mr. Biden decides to run, he said, the vice president will need to balance his close ties to Mr. Obama with his own unique message.
“It would be good for him to develop something unique something that inspired people independently,” Mr. Buchanan said.
But campaign specialists also say Mr. Biden’s Achilles heel remains his penchant for gaffes, which has continued in his years in the White House.
Among Mr. Biden’s most famous gaffes are telling a wheelchair-bound Missouri state senator to stand up at a campaign rally, calling Mr. Obama “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean” to run for the presidency, joking that in Delaware “you cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent” and caressing the shoulders of Stephanie Carter, wife of Defense Secretary Ashton Carter.
“I think that’s something that has to be addressed. It has to be addressed not just by what he might say about it in an announcement, but how he would conduct himself in the early going,” Mr. Buchanan said.
A Rasmussen Reports survey last week found voters split over whether Mr. Biden should get in the race. Among likely Democratic voters, 45 percent said Mr. Biden should not run for the nomination, compared to 40 percent who want him in the race.
The numbers are similar for general election voters, with 45 percent saying he should stay on the sidelines and 36 percent saying he should jump in the race, according to the poll.