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After war, a Biden's new battle

By Jason Horowitz
Friday, October 23, 2009

DOVER, DEL. -- On Sept. 30, a ceremony in front of the Delaware statehouse welcomed the 261st Theater Tactical Signal Brigade home from Iraq to the brick buildings of Dover. Organizers tied yellow ribbons around the trunks of maple trees, the branches of which hung over desks belonging to the Delaware National Guard Enlisted Association. Family members of returning soldiers sat on dozens of rows of white plastic chairs. Kids ran to get hot dogs at the "Welcome Home" USO tents.

And the political power brokers, television cameramen, photographers and reporters in the crowd were there to welcome home Beau Biden. The son of Vice President Joe Biden had -- as the stage-managed epic goes -- returned from war to protect his father's vacated Senate seat from a Republican onslaught. Biden is uniquely suited to raise money and Democratic enthusiasm, but in the weeks since his return as the state's attorney general, he has shown reluctance to join the battle.

Meanwhile, Democrat leaders are anguishing over the prospect of losing the Senate because Republicans -- Mark Kirk in Illinois and Mike Castle in Delaware -- will have captured the seats once held by the president and vice president. If a candidate named Biden is balking at a race in Delaware, then just how glum are things going to get for Democrats in 2010?

Trust me, he's running is the message Democratic leaders are sending, even as the 40-year-old Biden bides his time. Last week, the vice president hinted to a crowd at a fundraiser in Missouri that his eldest son is in the race. And Bob Menendez, the New Jersey senator tasked with protecting the Democratic Senate majority, said in an interview that he expected Biden to run: "Now that he is back home, I'll be reaching out to him and talking to him."

Biden, however, has lain low. He's spending time with his family. He's concentrating on his day job. And Menendez has gone mum, though he is privately assuring donors that the Biden candidacy is a go. During a recent sweep through New York City, Menendez ran into one of the party's most reliable fundraisers. The two Democrats shared intel about contested seats around the country.

"And what about Delaware?" the fundraiser, who asked not to be quoted revealing the details of a private conversation, asked.

"Biden will take care of that," said Menendez.

If so, then when? "He's not the type of guy who is going to let other people's timetables dictate his," said Jack Markell, the Delaware governor, the family-chosen surrogate. He argued forcefully that the prospect of Biden failing to protect his father's seat would not be so catastrophic.

"The implications would be that there would be one fewer seat for the Democrats," he said. "I don't think the impact goes on much beyond that. It will be a story for a couple days."

The homecoming

Political parties don't get many upstarts like Beau Biden. The clan, whose wholesome appeal could land them in a Ralph Lauren spread, sat in the front rows of a VIP section under the stage. Valerie Biden Owens, the vice president's sister, walked around like a nervous mother. Beau's wife, Hallie, wore Jackie O sunglasses and minded the couple's two immaculate kids -- Natalie, 5, and Hunter, 3. Miss Delaware, wearing a tiara and short blue dress, posed for pictures in their vicinity.

Jimmy Biden, the vice president's brother, reclined in a plastic chair. He sported a brown pinstripe suit with a white pocket square and turned the expansive Biden forehead toward the warm sky.

"Beau is clearly following in his father's footsteps," he said.

The members of the 261st marched behind drums and screaming bagpipes to a stage where the vice president stood at attention in a dark suit and light-blue tie.

He spoke theatrically.

"I found myself feeling somewhat guilty going back to Iraq as often as I did, I want you to know, for the press here, I was not doing it just for this unit. The president asked me to oversee Iraqi policy once we were elected," he said. A few moments later, he continued, "As a Delawarean I stand here steeped in pride. As an American I am awed by the quality and significance of your service. That as a parent, as a father, I can't tell you the feeling I have -- " here, he paused; when he got his voice back, it cracked -- "to be welcoming home a son."

The vice president and his wife departed in a motorcade, and the local television cameras scoured the unit for Beau. They found him standing at the end of a line six rows from the back. He wore wraparound sunglasses and fidgeted more than the soldiers around him. As speeches dragged on, he waved to his family and bent the beak of a cap that read "Biden" on the back. He mouthed words to his friends, while one general pitched the troops to potential employers: "You are getting some fantastic Americans back in the workforce."

When the unit was relieved, most of them leaned back and shouted a mighty "Hoo-rah." Beau clapped politely.

The media hounded him as he waded through the crowd toward his family. He lifted his son above his head. Cameras clicked like crazy. "Beau, how does it feel to be home?" ventured the Channel 6 newscaster. There was no point in answering. What could he say better than the pictures?

Watching Biden greet his family and friends, Markell said his political prospects were "unlimited."

In the back of the field, away from the Bidens, Chief Warrant Officer Robert O. Wardell, 47, said he remembered eating ice cream with Beau in the mess hall early in September. Wardell had asked him if he had kept up with all his work as attorney general. Beau, he said, told him he had turned everything over to his deputy.

"He realized what his priority was," Wardell said.

The company looked to Biden, a JAG captain, he said, "whenever we had legal issues." Wardell said he sat behind him on the flights to and from Iraq, and said that Biden was constantly checking his BlackBerry. Even in Iraq, Wardell got the feeling that Beau "kept abreast" of politics back home.

And on the home front, Beau was much on the minds of many in politics. After the November election, the vice president's former chief of staff Edward Kaufman was appointed to warm the seat. About six months ago, the vice president gave Castle a heads-up that he was "confident that Beau is going to run and Beau is pretty confident he is going to run," the GOP contender said.

After their patriarch's four decades of service, the Bidens are held in warm regard by a state still touched by the tragic death of Neilia and Naomi, the vice president's first wife and 13-month-old daughter, who perished in a 1972 car crash that seriously injured Beau and Hunter, then 3 and 2, respectively.

And the family rebuilt itself, with a camaraderie and an aura that suggests they're Delaware's down-to-earth answer to the Kennedys. Chris D'Amato, the son of former Republican New York senator Al D'Amato, roomed at Georgetown University with Beau's younger brother, Hunter, the family "dreamboat," as Chris D'Amato casts him, and would spend long weekends playing golf and doing free laundry with "Hunt and Bowey" in the Biden's Wilmington home. After graduation, Beau suggested D'Amato join him at Syracuse University Law School, the alma mater of both men's fathers, where they roomed together and hung out -- and have stayed tight as they each grew up and raised families.

"He was one of the most passionate dancers I have ever seen," said D'Amato, remembering that, at parties where R.E.M. was played, Beau would "not be afraid to make up his own dance moves."

D'Amato said that Biden has always known how to command attention. "In politics there's this thing," he said. "It's charisma. But it's something more."

What's in a name?

That something more is the last name, and the fundraising heft that comes with it. "He made a big impression at the convention before a national audience," said Richard Davis, a New York lawyer and a top fundraiser for Joe Biden's presidential primary bid. Davis said that while times were tight, especially for New York donors hit hard by the Wall Street crisis, there was a lot of enthusiasm for Biden. And Beau "is the vice president's son. So in that respect, in terms of raising money, I think he'll be well positioned."

But also well matched.

The only high office Castle, 70, hasn't occupied in Delaware politics is senator. He is a nine-term member of Congress, and he served as governor twice. A dozen Republican senators rang him up urging him to run, and after Castle made it clear he didn't want anymore calls, he received a letter from Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee that began, "Nobody ever said I couldn't write to you," according to Castle.

Castle said he had not made his decision based on national considerations.

"I'm not saying the political parties won't focus on it, I'm not saying that the White House won't focus on it," he said, predicting one of the most expensive races in Delaware history. "I think there is that focus out of Washington."

He said he fully expected to face Biden, who, he said, "has got a heck of a family name to run on," but "not anywhere the same exposure that a lot of the rest of us have had."

"He's very new to the job," said former Republican governor Pierre S. du Pont IV, who said he was supportive of Castle, who, like him, has been a two-term governor and served the state as its lone House member. "A lot of people know the name, but less people have met him. I can't tell you what he thinks about any national issue. A lot of people in Delaware actually know Castle."

Biden's short term working as attorney general -- just shy of two years -- has not been without glitches. A judge threw out the state's murder case against a former Delaware State University student because prosecutors didn't share evidence with the defense -- and the suspect went free. But the main fault of the tenure has been its brevity.

Delaware political analysts toss around an unlikely option that has Castle serving out the rest of the vice president's term -- and stepping aside for a more seasoned Beau in 2014. But Castle has made no promises to relinquish the seat, if he were to win it. "I'd have to think long and hard about that," Castle said.

And the Bidens have learned up close President Obama's lesson of seizing opportunities when they present themselves.

In a kind of screen test, Beau introduced himself as a potential heir apparent on "Good Morning America" last week. Beau's interviewer, Chris Cuomo -- a dynastic beneficiary himself -- certainly wouldn't hold the whole family-expectations thing against him. The screen caption under Beau read "VP's Son: Life in War Zone."

The star turn mostly focused on the imagery of the major's homecoming. Stills captured Beau in fatigues, in a frame with generations of jubilant Bidens. Asked whether he would run for his father's seat, Beau told Cuomo, "I have been away from my family for a year, first things first. I'm going to keep holding on to that guy you saw on the TV screen." Photos of him kissing his son floated across the screen.

"There's time to make that decision," he said.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company