Few national Democratic figures have more longtime friends in Florida than Joe Biden, who returns to the Sunshine State today amid growing chatter that he could enter and upend the presidential race.
The vice president's visit to South Florida — to discuss the Iran deal with Jewish residents, speak at Miami Dade College, and raise money for Democratic U.S. Senate campaigns — is his first high-profile trip since the prospect of him challenging Hillary Rodham Clinton for the nomination ceased to seem far-fetched. Reporters and Biden friends alike will be watching for signals about his level of interest.
But for all of the vice president's Florida ties and contacts — including top money-raisers and political strategists in his corner — it's far easier to find Democrats who love the idea of the feisty, shoot-from-the-hip Biden running for president than Democrats who see a plausible path for him outside of the Clinton campaign falling off the tracks.
"I don't hear anybody jumping off the Hillary Clinton ship. She has virtually every name in Florida," said Chris Korge, a top Democratic fundraiser and longtime Clinton supporter in Miami. "Hillary's got a hard-core group of supporters, a majority of which are women that are not shaking loose."
Biden, 72, has significant Florida ties, including a younger brother in Palm Beach County; Miami developer Michael Adler, who was national finance chairman for his 2008 presidential campaign; Patrick Baskette of Tampa, a veteran Democratic consultant who worked on Biden's U.S. Senate staff and his 1988 presidential campaign; and Tallahassee lobbyist Steve Schale, who ran Barack Obama's 2008 Florida campaign and is now advising the Draft Biden 2016 Super PAC.
"Joe Biden is one of those guys that if you work for him and get to know him, you're always going to be a loyalist," Baskette said. "On a personal basis, I hope he runs for president, but this is not anti-Hillary. This is about him. He's been a phenomenal vice president by all measures. He's been a consensus-builder by all measures."
Part of the reason DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz asked the vice president to discuss the Iran nuclear deal at the David Posnack Jewish Community Center in Davie is because of the credibility Biden has in South Florida's Jewish community. A senator from 1973 to 2009, he has worked closely with every Israeli prime minister since Golda Meir.
Mitchell Berger of Fort Lauderdale has known Biden for 40 years and calls himself a deep admirer of the vice president.
"We all love him, he deserves time to think through this, and he has been a great public servant," said Berger, who in the meantime is pressing forward with his plans to host Clinton at his home for an Oct. 2 fundraiser.
Several Democratic fundraisers were reluctant to even speak on the record about a possible Biden candidacy, either because they did not want to antagonize the Clintons by talking up Biden or so as not to hurt Biden by belittling his chances. He has run for president unsuccessfully twice before.
"The big issue I see, and heard people talk about really, is, what's his path? Bernie Sanders may have the left, Hillary has women and the center and other groups. Where does he carve out his path? There was no natural inherent constituency like there are for some of the other candidates," said Mitch Ceasar, a longtime Democratic National Committee member from Broward County, who said he heard little buzz about Biden at a DNC meeting in Minneapolis last week.
"That definitely surprised me," Ceasar said. "I think people like Biden, but when you talk to DNC members — not all — but most of them are either committed to Hillary or will be or lean that way."
State Sen. Dwight Bullard of Cutler Bay, chairman of the Miami-Dade County Democratic Party, said some prominent Obama supporters in South Florida started talking about a potential Biden candidacy after Clinton cracked a joke about wiping her private email server clean.
"There were murmurs going around when the email stuff was happening. There were a couple of folks who were like, maybe we need a backup plan. But in 10 days I haven't heard anything," said Bullard, who argues another strong primary candidate would only help Democrats.
Schale, the former Obama strategist, sees no downside to Biden running. His candidacy would add excitement and attention to the Democrats, and get more voters engaged, which would only help the ultimate nominee.
"These primary elections are largely all about momentum," Schale said. "Joe Biden's path would be the same as hers — get in the race, win a couple early primaries and go from there."
Baskette said his enthusiasm for Biden is based not on plotting out his path to the nomination and White House but on the kind of president he could be.
"But if conventional wisdom always carried the day, then explain Donald Trump," Baskette said of the Republican front-runner. "These aren't conventional times."
Miami Herald staff writer Amy Sherman contributed to this report.