DES MOINES, Iowa — As former Vice-President Joe Biden prepares for a potential White House campaign, his associates increasingly see a strong showing in the Iowa caucuses as crucial to his ability to win the Democratic presidential nomination.
Although Biden hasn’t yet decided whether to launch a third presidential campaign, one of his top associates, Pete Kavanaugh, was in Des Moines on Wednesday meeting with potential senior staff and longtime supporters. He discussed a senior role on Biden’s team with Jessica Vanden Berg, a former state Democratic Party executive director who has worked on past presidential caucus campaigns.
The move underscores the importance Biden’s team is placing on a commanding finish in Iowa. As a former vice-president with strong name recognition, Biden needs to do well in Iowa in hopes of charging into the South Carolina primary, where his national security profile and enduring popularity among African-Americans would pose a challenge for newer faces trying to break through.
But to win in Iowa, Biden would have to establish the type of sophisticated, on-the-ground political operation that he was unable to build the last time he ran, in 2007. He finished a disappointing fifth in 2008 in a race dominated by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, quickly dropping out of the campaign.
That’s why the conversations with Vanden Berg could be significant. She’s a homegrown national operative, leading the Iowa Democratic Party more than a decade ago. She’s since held senior roles in presidential campaigns and the North Carolina Democratic Party as well as in Senate races for former Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.
“She’s good. She’s very good. And if she’s the state director or the state whatever, that makes sense,” former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack said. “That would be a good hire.”
Like other sources for this story, the people who described Kavanaugh’s discussion with Vanden Berg spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment on Biden’s strategy. Vanden Berg and Kavanaugh declined to respond to requests for comment.
Biden associates and others have said no offers have been extended in Iowa or elsewhere, though they are charting out their list of names and where they would likely be slotted. There has been discussion within Biden’s circle and some potential hires of possible salary ranges for some posts, with the important caveat that there is no campaign fundraising organization in place yet to pay staffers.
Biden’s team has also begun focusing on key staffing moves in South Carolina, home to the first Southern primary a few weeks after the caucuses.
Aides to Biden have spoken with Kendall Corley, a veteran Democratic strategist with strong ties to 2018 gubernatorial candidate James Smith and a key adviser on Alabama Sen. Doug Jones’ 2017 campaign. Besides being recommended by Smith, Corley was also backed by Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., who is the former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and a Biden supporter.
Biden’s political future has been the subject of speculation for months as more than a dozen other Democrats have entered the race. His uneven performance during some public events have only raised questions about his readiness for a grueling campaign.
During a Tuesday speech in New York, Biden lamented his role in the 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings that undermined Anita Hill’s credibility, saying, “I wish I could have done something.” His comments were condemned on social media, with many noting he was the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time Hill testified about sexual harassment allegations against Clarence Thomas.
Last month, he was forced to walk back a comment that Vice-President Mike Pence was a “decent guy” after Democratic activists, including former “Sex and the City” star Cynthia Nixon, criticized the remark in light of Pence’s opposition to gay rights.
As Biden waits to decide and occasionally stumbles, it leaves an opening for other centrists to assert themselves in the race. Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, for instance, has told people he’s considering entering the 2020 contest. McAuliffe has long viewed Biden as someone who could block his path to the Democratic nomination.
Associated Press writers Steve Peoples in New York, Bill Barrow in Atlanta and Alan Suderman in Richmond, Va., contributed to this report.