PROVIDENCE, R.I. — At a Democratic rally in a downtown ballroom Sunday evening, Gov. Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island spoke vividly about the Senate hearings on the sexual assault allegations against Judge Brett Kavanaugh, saying her "stomach turned" as she watched. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., was indignant, vowing "no more Kavanaughs" if the Democrats win control of the Senate in November.
When it was Joe Biden's turn to speak, he was stern but circumspect — even philosophical. Republicans, he said, had displayed "blind rage and brute partisanship," imperiling the Supreme Court's moral authority. He accused them of flouting norms he enforced as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in the 1990s.
"Dr. Blasey Ford gave courageous, credible testimony," Biden said, referring to Christine Blasey Ford, who says Kavanaugh attacked her when they were teenagers. "She was denied an FBI investigation, which was automatic when I was chairman."
It was a pointed but careful condemnation from Biden, and a sign of how his former role on the Judiciary Committee is complicating his present-day status as a leader in the Democratic Party.
As he actively explores a 2020 presidential run, the 75-year-old former vice president is coming under increased scrutiny from his fellow Democrats because of his role in the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings in 1991, as explosive debates over gender, sex and the Supreme Court overshadow the themes of economic fairness that Biden trumpeted across the Northeast in recent days.
His name has been invoked frequently in recent days, mainly by Republicans, for leading the 1991 hearings when an all-male, all-white Judiciary Committee aggressively questioned Anita Hill about claims that Thomas sexually harassed her. The hearings have long been a source of discomfort with Biden among Democrats who remember the process.
Biden and his aides have issued multiple statements accusing Republicans of taking his past remarks and actions out of context to bolster their defense of Kavanaugh. But he has largely stayed on the margins of the current Supreme Court fight, and last week scrapped a trip to South Carolina and Georgia that would have overlapped with Blasey and Kavanaugh's testimony, though aides said that was not the reason for the cancellation.
The revival of interest in the Hill-Thomas hearings — and the mood of alarm among Democrats about the integrity of the Supreme Court — has clouded Biden's 2020 deliberations as they approach a critical phase. He has already been weighing his ambition to lead the country and his determination to help oust President Donald Trump against concern that a campaign would strain his family — and a sense that many Democrats are yearning for a leader from a younger, more diverse and pugilistic generation.
Even some of Biden's friends say he will have to show remorse for the Hill-Thomas hearings if he wants Democrats to accept him as a leader for the future in a party sharply defined by the concerns of liberal women.
Former Sen. Barbara Boxer of California — who won her seat in the "Year of the Woman" election in 1992, triggered in part by outrage over the Hill-Thomas hearings — said Biden had to address his past head-on.
"If he handles it right, it could be a plus; if he handles it wrong, it'll be a minus," Boxer said. "And handling it right means stepping up to the plate."
Biden's low profile in the Kavanaugh fight has contrasted sharply with the prominence of other potential 2020 candidates, including Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey, who questioned the judge and Blasey in the Judiciary Committee, and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Warren said Saturday that the Republicans' treatment of Blasey has pushed her closer to running for president.
Biden has privately expressed frustration about the ire directed at him for his Judiciary Committee tenure, according to multiple people who have spoken with him directly but requested anonymity to discuss private conversations. He has been incensed about Republicans taking some of his past remarks out of context: They brandished one video clip from 1991 to suggest Biden had dismissed the value of having the FBI investigate Hill's allegations. Biden's spokesman said he had been rejecting an argument from a Republican, Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, who said the FBI had effectively exonerated Thomas.
But Biden has also complained to allies that fellow Democrats are now judging his role in the Hill hearings without, he believes, appropriately recognizing the limits of his power as a committee chairman and the political reality of that moment.
Publicly, Biden has expressed regret about the way the Hill hearings unfolded; privately, he has also described it as unfair that Hill continues to hold him responsible for her rough treatment in the Senate.
Advisers to Biden said there was no current plan for confronting his handling of the Thomas nomination more exhaustively and Biden has not reached out to Hill during the Kavanaugh hearings.
Yet Biden's associates say that he would not be deterred from seeking the White House by the thought of having his record picked over. Were he to forgo a run, Biden allies say, it would be mainly out of concern for his family, which has endured tragedy and turbulence the last several years: one of Biden's sons, Beau, died of cancer in 2015 — contributing to his decision not to run in 2016 — and another son, Hunter, finalized a lurid divorce last year.
Biden's former chief of staff, Steve Ricchetti, has been contacting Democratic donors to gauge their interest. Several potential supporters have suggested that Biden pledge to serve one term as president, to cast his candidacy as an act of sacrifice and mute concerns about his age. Another possibility would be to announce a younger running mate early in a campaign. It is unclear how seriously Biden is entertaining either idea.
Biden may also signal with his midterm travel whether he is up for the rigors of a national campaign. Aides said early in the summer that he would campaign up to four days a week this fall, but some concede privately he has kept a lighter schedule.
During a fundraising visit to New York City in September, Biden spoke bluntly at multiple private events about his thinking about 2020, exposing his indecision about the race, according to people who attended the gatherings.
At a Manhattan fundraiser for Richard Cordray, the Democratic nominee for governor of Ohio, Biden sounded a determined note, saying that he could take back once-Democratic regions, like the Midwest, that had drifted away from the party. At another fundraiser, Biden sounded more cautious, saying he could campaign for Democrats anywhere in the country this fall — except for Iowa and New Hampshire, because it would send the wrong message.
Vikas Desai, a venture-capital investor who attended the Cordray fundraiser, said that Biden had sounded "very passionate" about 2020.
"I got the impression that he believes he can connect with the voter base of the U.S., now more than ever," Desai said.
The midterms, Biden allies say, could offer sharp clarity about the appetite within the party for his brand of politics.
Should younger, unabashedly progressive Democrats, such as Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Andrew Gillum in Florida, win swing-state gubernatorial races, or should Beto O'Rourke prevail in his Senate bid in Texas, it could create a mood of electric generational change that might be inhospitable to Biden.
For now, however, Biden is unmatched among national Democrats in his ability to traverse the electoral map, ranging from the sparse expanse of North Dakota to the dense suburbs of Orange County, California. He is expected to appear soon with both Abrams and Gillum, and is likely to visit the early-voting caucus state of Nevada as well.
A recent private poll in Iowa, the leadoff state in presidential races, found Biden with a 94 percent approval rating among Democratic caucusgoers and a clear lead in a 2020 contest over the next-strongest Democrat, Warren. But in a warning sign, the poll also found most Democrats preferred a younger candidate with new ideas over an older candidate with deep experience in Washington.
Former Gov. Ted Strickland of Ohio, the last Democrat to lead that state, said Biden had a unique ability to assemble a winning coalition there, with an appeal anchored in his modest roots.
"He talks about things that are important to a lot of working-class Ohioans — health care and economic justice," Strickland said, predicting Biden would start out as the Democratic front-runner if he runs.
But Strickland, who was a close ally of the Obama administration, said he was unsure how Biden would fare in a rowdy Democratic field, and said he would have to address "the Anita Hill period of his political life." Strickland added that he was personally urging another possible contender, Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington state, to enter the race.
In the broad orbit of former Obama administration officials, affection for Biden runs deep, but so do reservations about his potential candidacy. Some worry that the idea of a Biden candidacy sounds better than it would turn out to be, and express a sense of protectiveness toward a former vice president who could see himself branded as something other than Democrats' beloved "Uncle Joe" in a rough-and-tumble primary.
Others are actively recruiting another Obama ally for the race: former Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts. In separate conversations earlier this year, Valerie Jarrett, Obama's former senior adviser, and Michelle Obama walked Patrick's wife, Diane, through the demands and expectations of a national campaign, Democrats briefed on the discussions said.
Biden has told several Democrats, including some who are contemplating the 2020 race themselves, that if he sees a strong party leader emerge whom he could comfortably support, he might back that person rather than run himself. The absence of such a figure, so far, has intensified his deliberations.
"He's said for two years if somebody is really moving he'd step aside,'' said Steve Schale, a Florida-based Democratic strategist who sought to draft Biden for the 2016 race. "And I'd argue that nobody has stepped up yet."