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Why Joe Biden is smart to sit out first Democratic debate

Vice President Biden – 'Hamlet on the Potomac' – can see how Hillary Clinton does, and then make a decision: to run or not to run. 

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A television commercial promoting Vice President Joe Biden to run in the 2016 democratic presidential race is shown as reporters work in the press room for the democratic debate at the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas on Tuesday.

Mike Blake/Reuters

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Chances are, Vice President Joe Biden will pay extra-close attention to the Democratic presidential debate Tuesday night.

Mr. Biden is, by all accounts, still actively considering getting into the race, earning the nickname “Hamlet on the Potomac.” And debate host CNN made clear that he was qualified to take part in the debate: He easily crosses the required 1 percent threshold in polls of Democratic voters.

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All he had to do was announce his candidacy, and he could be up on stage with Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and the others. CNN even had a podium at the ready, should Biden have had a last-minute urge to fly to Las Vegas and join the fun.

But it’s now too late. Biden has stayed mum and, instead, can watch “fight night” on TV from the comfort of the vice presidential residence here in Washington.

And that, analysts say, is the smart move. Biden can assess the dynamic of the debate and ask himself: Is there an obvious opening for me up there?

“He needs to look and see whether he genuinely believes that Hillary Clinton is the best chance for the Democrats to win,” says Jennifer Lawless, a political scientist at American University in Washington.

“If he thinks her performance is not particularly compelling, or if he thinks that she signals anything to him that suggests she might have a problem in the general election, I think that’s what convinces him to throw his hat in.”

Almost half of the nation’s Democrats (48 percent) want Biden to get into the race, versus 30 percent who want him to stay out, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released Monday.

But of those surveyed, only 17 percent said Biden would be their first choice, compared with 46 percent who would back Clinton. Still, that’s with Biden as a noncandidate. Were Biden to get in, the dynamic of the nomination race would change. Voters would see him in full campaign mode, including the energy and enthusiasm he brings to working crowds. At his best, he would blend the authenticity of a Bernie Sanders with the more mainstream Democratic views of a Clinton, coupled with his long experience in government.

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In addition, Biden’s record and political career would get a thorough-going review by the media; opposition research by other candidates would also enter the information stream.

At this late stage, many pundits have concluded that Biden won’t get in. The death in May of his elder son, Beau, is still too raw. His family is still hurting.

But Joe Biden has wanted to be president since, well, forever. And the moment of truth is near. If he doesn’t get in before the next Democratic debate, on Nov. 14, then chances are it will really, truly be too late.