"There's a consensus," Biden told an excited crowd during an appearance at the University of Delaware. "The most important people in my life want me to run." He did not explicitly say he was running. In fact, the 76-year-old lifelong politician conceded he may not be popular enough to win over the Democratic Party of 2020. Yet roughly 10 months before the first primary votes are cast, Biden sent an unmistakable message to prospective rivals and voters alike that the already-crowded Democratic field is far from set.
Should he run, he would instantly become a front-runner, the best-known option for primary voters and perhaps the best-respected by elected officials and donors, who in many cases have a decadeslong relationship with the longtime Democratic leader. Biden's potential rivals had little to say publicly about his latest comments on potentially joining the field, but in private, their camps conceded that he would be a political force who could scramble the evolving field.
Biden could erode Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' popularity with working-class voters in the Midwest, California Sen. Kamala Harris' standing with African-American voters in South Carolina and New York billionaire Michael Bloomberg's claim to the political center.
"Uncle Joe is absolutely beloved within the Democratic Party and for good reason," said Zac Petkanas, an aide to former Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. "However, this isn't a popularity contest. Not only is he going to have to prove he's got fresh, bold ideas, but that he's tough enough to stand up to Trump."
While he would be the oldest U.S. president ever elected, toughness has never been an issue for Biden, a native of working-class Pennsylvania, who suggested last year that he would "beat the hell" out of President Donald Trump for his comments about women if the two were in high school.
It is unclear, however, if Biden's profile, politics and policies are in line with today's liberal base, a relatively small slice of the electorate that holds outsized sway in presidential primary elections.
Biden would stand out as an old white man just months after Democratic voters sent the most diverse class to Congress in history. He would also be viewed as an establishment-minded moderate unwilling to wholly embrace litmus test issues like free universal health care, free college and the so-called Green New Deal.
"He is the biggest, best-known candidate in the race," said veteran Democratic strategist Gary Pearce. "Personally, I have mixed feelings. For all the respect I have for him, I don't know if he's the right thing for the Democratic Party right now."
Still, Trump allies have long considered Biden among the most formidable possible general election opponents given his working-class appeal. Despite more than four decades in Washington, most of it as a Delaware senator, he has long played up his upbringing in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
Biden also has far more international experience than his would-be Democratic opponents — and the president. At a global security conference in Germany this month, he told an international audience that an American leader "stands up to the aggression of dictators."
Yet he has struggled to develop a strong base of political support in two previous presidential runs. Veteran Iowa Democratic strategist Brenda Kole noted that Biden has never run as a former vice president — particularly one so closely associated with popular former President Barack Obama.
"Ultimately, if he can make the case that he is the best candidate to beat Donald Trump, and I haven't heard a convincing case yet from the vast field of candidates so far, he could break through," Kole said.
With his family behind him, Biden said Tuesday he's still determining whether he can mount a high-powered campaign to win the nomination and defeat Trump. He acknowledged that he's not sure his "alleged appeal" is real.
"I don't want this to be a fool's errand," he said, noting that his personal decision not to align his candidacy with a super PAC could create financial challenges. Biden told The New York Times he'd launch his campaign after March if he decides to get in.
In the meantime, Biden allies are reaching out to campaign operatives in early-voting states including New Hampshire and South Carolina to gauge their willingness to join Biden's team. On Tuesday, operatives in both states said chatter continues, though no formal job offers had been extended.
South Carolina Democrat James Smith, the party's nominee for governor in 2018, said Tuesday that he's compiled a list of possible hires for the former vice president. "I believe he's getting ready to say the word," said Smith, who was endorsed by and campaigned with Biden last year.
In Iowa, Biden is the most recognized and preferred in early polls. Yet activists report a hunger for new faces, as evidenced by big crowds at recent events for Harris and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Midwesterners such as Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown are also making a play for Iowa voters, though Brown has yet to announce whether he's running.
"(Biden's) got the experience, but I don't want him to run," said Julie Neff, a Democrat from suburban Des Moines, who attended a recent event for Klobuchar. "I'd vote for him if he were the nominee, but we need someone new. There's a whole new generation of future leaders out there."
Beaumont reported from Des Moines, Iowa. Associated Press writer Meg Kinnard in Columbia, South Carolina, contributed to this report.