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Why Biden Can’t Overlook Iowa or New Hampshire

Vice President Joe Biden answers questions from students at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass. Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014. Winslow Townson / AP

Vice President Joe Biden’s reported focus on South Carolina as key to his potential presidential bid has early-state operatives and officials — and even some of Biden’s supporters — alarmed and incredulous.

They note there’s little historic precedent for a presidential candidate ignoring Iowa and New Hampshire and going on to win the nomination.

They say he wouldn’t be taken seriously in the race. The strategy was so unthinkable that Iowa state Sen. Herman Quirmbach — a 2008 Biden supporter — refused to believe it.

“I don’t see any precedent at all, at any time in the last 50 years, for somebody skipping Iowa and New Hampshire and still being viable,” Qurmbach said in an interview.

“It just doesn’t work that way. And Joe Biden knows that.”

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But that could be a big part of the early strategy among Biden backers, as reported by Politico this past weekend – if the vice president does make a last-minute entry into the race. Politico reported that Biden would rely on the “goodwill” he has in Iowa to ramp up a late campaign, and “almost write off” New Hampshire, aware that current Democratic front-runners Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton are taking up most of the oxygen there.

Instead, he would put his political chips in South Carolina. It’s a strategy that makes some sense for Biden: He’s got a deep political network there, going back to his long friendship with state leaders like Democratic Sen. Fritz Hollings. His 2012 political director, Trip King, was his 2008 state director in South Carolina, and still lives there. Dick Harpootlian, a former state party chairman, has been one of his most vocal advocates and a big early supporter of the super PAC working to draft him into the race.

His supporters believe Biden would have strong support among the state’s sizable African-American community because of his work on civil rights issues, and they note that Clinton was clobbered there by then-Sen. Barack Obama in 2008.

But it’s a strategy that political analysts and operatives have panned as unsustainable – and almost certain to fail.

Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, called the prospect of sitting out an early primary state “ridiculous, utterly ridiculous.”

“Joe Biden is the incumbent two-term vice president of the United States. You don’t get to skip states if you are the incumbent vice president and you’re serious,” he said.

New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley echoed Sabato, explaining there could be backlash from early primary voters that could damage him through the rest of the process.

“The reaction by the voters in Iowa and New Hampshire [to being ignored] would not be helpful to his candidacy,” he said.

“If you’ve got a sitting vice president who presumably did not campaign in Iowa and New Hampshire, and didn’t have a campaign team up here, and wasn’t part of either state’s process, you could potentially get in single digits support.”

“But that would be very hard to overcome later on,” he added.

But Iowa and New Hampshire haven't been favorable to him in the past. In 2008, Biden came in fifth with just 1 percent of the vote in Iowa and dropped out of the race before ever putting his New Hampshire support to the test, never making it to South Carolina's primary as a candidate.

And as the clock ticks down to the 2016 contests, it becomes ever harder to find a foothold in the first two states. In Iowa, Clinton and Sanders already have a significant head-start on him — Clinton’s campaign says it has 47 staffers out in the field in Iowa alone, not including its headquarters staff, while Sanders’ campaign says they’ll have “over 50 people on the ground by Labor Day weekend.”

Iowa, Sabato noted, is a high-commitment, hands-on kind of state, where voters want to meet every candidate and shake their hands before making a decision.

“If he entered Iowa, he’d have to campaign almost constantly to have a chance of doing well, much less upending Hillary Clinton,” he said.

And anything less than first or second place could end his campaign before it really starts.

“If Bernie Sanders is judged to be Hillary Clinton’s primary alternative, that’s not really good for Joe Biden,” Sabato added.

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But he’d have little time left to ramp up for New Hampshire if he focused his energies on Iowa, and there, too, he’d struggle to find staff. Indeed, his New Hampshire state director, Julia Barnes, is already spoken for — she signed on with Sanders’ campaign in the same role.

Where Iowa and New Hampshire are already a hubbub of campaign activity, South Carolina’s contest – at least on the Democratic side – is just getting started. Clinton has two offices there, with eight field organizers on the ground; Sanders has “a very light staff” and will be opening an office there “soon,” per his campaign.

Indeed, even some Clinton backers said Biden’s entry into the race would cause the front-runner to take notice.

Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Don Fowler, who has endorsed Clinton, said Biden could “make a run of it” if he had the money and staff to burn.

Fowler said that the Clinton campaign is “underway here, and it has been and will continue to be a lot of activity.”

“I’m not entirely sure how thorough or qualitative the campaign has been, but there’s been a lot of activity,” he added, but noted: “It’ll take a little honing to make it right."

Biden’s run, however, could shift things into high-gear.

“If the vice president should get in, then that will accelerate the effort on the part of the Clinton people,” Fowler said.

South Carolina state Rep. James Smith, who’s been one of the loudest voices in the state calling for Biden to run, said: “The campaign will be ready when he gets in. Just knowing who his supporters are, the longstanding connections he has in the state — if he starts here, I believe he will win South Carolina.”

But for Biden, that may be just the start. And early-state party officials and operatives say he’d be lucky if it wasn’t the end.