As Biden weighs a 2020 bid, Democratic voters are looking elsewhere

By Caitlin Huey-Burns and Bo Erickson

/ CBS News

Dickerson on interview with Bernie Sanders

Columbia, S.C. — Joe Biden leads most Democratic primary polls and is so revered in the party that many voters who have never met him in person refer to him as they would a longtime friend.

But as he takes his time considering a bid for the White House, Democratic primary voters are getting busy meeting all of the candidates who have already declared. And the energy surrounding this new crop of contenders — campaign events in South Carolina and New Hampshire over Presidents Day weekend drew thousands — is making the former vice president appear more like a relic than a real contender in the minds of some Democrats at this early stage of the campaign.

With one of the largest and most diverse presidential fields the party has seen, voters are already measuring up their "love for Joe" against an array of new options.

"I wish he had done it before. Now he's got a lot of stiff competition," said Carl Streeter, a retired Air Force veteran from Goose Creek, South Carolina.

And some voters have such an affinity for him that they almost don't want him to run. Many of those enthused by the Democratic primary field feel invested in his legacy and are fearful that the primary process could damage him.

"I love Joe Biden. I just don't know. I would hate for his career and all of that to end on a loss," said Kerry Fulton, a Columbia resident. "And as much as I love him, I think he potentially has baggage that could be twisted and distorted and taken and manufactured into something that can't overcome the Trump machine … I just hate that his timing way off last time around. I feel that may have been his time."

Cynthia Stetzer, a retiree from Charleston, said she used to live in New Hampshire and voted for Biden during his previous attempts at the presidency. "I have always supported Joe Biden. And I still like him very, very much. I think his time is, I think it's over … I think he has a lot to offer to the [eventual] candidate and to the Democratic Party."

In New Hampshire, where five contenders campaigned there simultaneously over the weekend, many Democrats who began to shop for a candidate said they also wanted Biden to stay out of the contest.

"I love Joe Biden!" Cathy Woolf shouted above the music before an event for Sen. Cory Booker in Portsmouth. As a former Delaware resident, she appreciated his commitment to public service but for her, it seems like Biden feels like he has a "right to the presidency."

"I love Joe," was a common refrain among voters in the Palmetto State, where he has had particularly deep ties, and in the Granite State where he has run for president twice before. And it helps explain why he leads the field in public polling at this stage.

"Very early polls, to a great extent, measure name ID and familiarity — which the former VP obviously has — along with voters' impressions of a figure if they have one," says Anthony Salvanto, director of CBS News Elections and Surveys. "And of course Joe Biden served in a presidential administration of which Democrats strongly approved."

But even those who see him as still formidable say he needs to make a decision soon.

"I do believe the window is narrowing," said Jennifer Clyburn-Reed, the daughter of Rep. James Clyburn, a South Carolina kingmaker. Clyburn-Reed likened the Democratic field to a buffet.

"Just personally, if you're going to run let's get in here so we can see our choices," she said. "Don't bring out the macaroni and cheese after all the main dishes are gone. I would really like to see my meal all out at once, so we can go and dabble in all the dishes, and see what it is that we want to make our main course."

Strategists say the diversity of the field and the amount of choices is attractive to Democratic voters. "The challenge for Joe is to maintain his popularity among potential Democratic voters," says South Carolina Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright. "When you go from being known as being America's uncle to a candidate in the Democratic primary, the ballgame changes."

Biden "has to understand the more people meet the candidates and the more they learn about them, the more likely they could be turned off the the idea of Biden running," Seawright says.

Bernice Scott, a long time Columbia-based Democratic activist, said she gathered a group of women at her house over the weekend to talk about the campaign and take an early temperature reading. "They say he's done well, they love him and they want to do a change from the 'white male syndrome,'" said Scott, whose granddaughter, Jalissa Washington-Price, is Kamala Harris' deputy national political director.

"The white male syndrome" also came up frequently in New Hampshire — "no more old, white males," Democratic voters said over and over again when asked about Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Even some older white men think it is time for young blood. "Frankly, I don't want to see an elderly president come into office," former U.S. Amb. Frank Bruno, a long time New Hampshire campaign liaison, said. "In fact I don't think it would be wise to elect a president that is over 70." Biden, meanwhile, will turn 77 this year.

Biden's presence will still remain as other Democrats try to pick out their favorite aspects of "Joe" in other candidates.

Progressive Concord talk radio host and former gubernatorial candidate Arnie Arnesen gushed over two other Democrats: South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who she saw in New Hampshire campaigning this weekend, and Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio. She said they both are "serious but charming" with Midwest credentials and have a "very sober" position on "Healthcare-for-All."

"I love Joe, I know Joe. I knew him in the first campaign and the second campaign Biden has a lot of issues. Biden is too attached to Wall Street. Biden has the Anita Hill problem."

Put more simply: "These two people have a lot of the strengths of Biden but none of the s—t," Arneson said.

Others pointed to the folksiness of former Rep. Beto O'Rourke of Texas as someone who fits the Biden mold.

"Some people are loyal and really want Biden," says Scott, the South Carolina based activist. "If all the other people weren't running, Biden would be it."

For those Biden loyalists, like New Hampshire resident Maureen Brennan, no one can replace him.

"I'm 75," Brennan giggled when asked her age. "Now you see why the Joe Biden [support]."

First published on February 19, 2019

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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