Posted: March 31, 2004; updated: April 2, 2004


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

First there was the stir about whether U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. would run for president. It settled down when he took himself out of the Democratic field last August, but it did not stay away for long.

The stir was back with the question about whether Biden would endorse anyone. It died away with his elaborate wink in John F. Kerry's direction days before Delaware's presidential primary in February.

But this is Joe Biden, and there has to be a stir. There always does. It goes all the way back to the thunderous upset that put him in the Senate in 1972 as a 29-year-old upstart with not even a full term on the New Castle County Council in him, so it is time enough for the stir to return.

A bunch of Delaware bankers, of all people, got wind of it early this month during an annual outing to Washington to meet with the congressional delegation and banking regulators.

In a session with Biden, someone asked coyly whether they should be calling him "Mr. Secretary" -- as in secretary of state, if Kerry and the Democrats evict George W. Bush and the Republicans from the White House. It was the cue for one of Biden's trademark soliloquies about to be or not to be.

"No, you shouldn't," Biden told the bankers, but he did not let it go at that.

In an interview Monday, Biden recounted what he told the bankers, the story of which has been spreading from banking to political circles in its inevitable way onto the Delaware Grapevine.

"That's a long way off. I think the instinct would be not to accept it," Biden said. "I don't know what I would do. No one can be asked to be secretary of state without seriously considering it."

Biden noted he is a six-term senator who never has had a boss. He said his positions and Kerry's would have to be consistent -- which at this point they largely are. He would have to give up his Senate seat.

Still, as in all the stir about Biden, it is not far-fetched, as long as the presidential race remains the seesaw that it appears to be. Since 1997 he has been the Senate's leading Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, which he chaired when his party was in the majority. His background here is a key reason he appeared on more Sunday morning news shows in 2003 than any other member of Congress.

"I would predict, if Kerry wins, Joe is the favorite to be secretary of state because he has so much experience," said former Gov. Pierre S. du Pont, a Republican who knows something about presidential politics himself.

As Cabinet positions go, they do not get better than secretary of state. Some of the people who have accepted it are Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and George C. Marshall. Yes, there is a Delaware precedent -- Louis McLane, John M. Clayton and Thomas F. Bayard, all in the 19th Century.

In talking with the bankers, Biden also raised the question of senatorial succession if he were to go into a Kerry Cabinet. His current six-year term is not up for election again until 2008.

If Biden were to resign, say in early January 2005, it would fall to Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, a fellow Democrat, to appoint someone until the seat could be filled by the voters in the next election in 2006. The winner would serve for two years, until the end of what would have been Biden's tenure, and the seat would be back on the ballot in 2008 for a full six-year term.

Biden called U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, a Republican elected to Delaware's lone House seat in 1992 after two terms as governor, a logical choice but difficult for a Democratic governor to appoint. He also mentioned his 35-year-old son, Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III, a Wilmington lawyer and former federal prosecutor regarded as a likely candidate for Delaware attorney general in 2006.

"I think Beau would be the only guy who could hold the seat. I don't think Beau would do it," Biden said.

Beyond the bankers' meeting, Biden himself stirred up the notion of secretary of state 10 days ago when he appeared on ABC's "This Week," hosted by George Stephanopoulos.

In a discussion about the fragile relationship between the United States and Europe, Biden volunteered to Stephanopoulos, "If you were the president of the United States and I were your secretary of state, I'd say, get on the plane now, go to Europe, call a meeting at NATO. This is a time to unite."

Stephanopoulos did his part to help the scenario along, saying, "And if I were the president, I would say back to you, why would I do that in an election year, where there's going to be millions in the streets protesting?"

Biden played it out. "Because I tell you, because you're president of the United States and you have an obligation to protect this nation. And if you continue to lose Europe, Mr. President -- and I'd tell you this way -- if you continue to lose Europe, you're jeopardizing my country, Mr. President, and I'm resigning. That's why."

For now, the speculation is about secretary of state. If Kerry sinks, there would not even be a pause before the next round -- Joe Biden in '08.