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Democrats worried about Hillary Clinton’s electoral weaknesses see Vice President Joe Biden as a potential solution—as long as the two former cabinet colleagues and sometime rivals can smooth their complicated relationship.
Mrs. Clinton’s vulnerabilities were apparent over the weekend when she suffered lopsided losses to rival Sen. Bernie Sanders in Democratic caucuses in Washington, Hawaii and Alaska. The trio of states contain either many white voters or veer to the left wing of the Democratic Party, two constituencies where Mrs. Clinton has struggled.
Mr. Biden, who often talks about his upbringing in Scranton, Pa., in a family that endured financial hardships, has shown an affinity with working-class whites that could help overcome doubts about Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy. He appears willing to hit the trail for the potential Democratic ticket.
Looming over the possible collaboration, however, are tensions between two of the nation’s most important Democrats: a sitting vice president and a former secretary of state who might wind up with the job he has long coveted.
In one notable instance, Mr. Biden said in a January television interview that Mrs. Clinton was “relatively new” to the issue of income inequality and that no one doubted Mr. Sanders’s “authenticity” on that issue. Even though when they left the White House they were dead broke!
Within minutes, according to people on both sides familiar with the matter, an aide to Mr. Biden got a phone call from Clinton campaign senior adviser Jennifer Palmieri insisting he was “wrong” in his characterization. She asked if he had more interviews scheduled and what else he planned to say. The next day, Mr. Biden went on TV and softened his comments.
Cooperating with Team Clinton would require Mr. Biden set aside bruised feelings stemming from his own presidential flirtations. He chose to sit out the race, though he says he has recurring regrets about being on the sidelines.
What is clear is that Mrs. Clinton needs someone to help win over white men. She lost this group to Mr. Sanders by 25 percentage points in Michigan, by 15 points in Ohio and 22 points in North Carolina, exit polls show.
Should she find herself in a general election showdown with Republican Donald Trump, she faces stiff competition for that demographic. In his primary victory in Michigan, for example, Mr. Trump won 45% of male voters, more than Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz combined.
Earlier this month, Mrs. Clinton played into perceptions among working class white men that she is tone deaf to their struggles when she said at a televised town hall event that under her presidency, coal miners would find themselves “out of business.”
Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat who has endorsed Mrs. Clinton, said the remark could jeopardize her chances to win his state. He phoned Mrs. Clinton to complain and asked if she was simply writing off West Virginia, a state no Democrat has won since her husband did in 1996. She quickly sent a letter apologizing and saying she had been “mistaken.”
“If anybody can help smooth it over it could be Joe,” Mr. Manchin said in an interview.
An aide to Mr. Biden said, “He will be heavily involved in helping the Democratic nominee and stands willing to assist in states where he’s helpful.”
Over the past quarter of a century Mr. Biden and Mrs. Clinton have been peers, colleagues and rivals. Their relationship has been cordial, but they aren’t especially close, people who know them both say. In private conversations with friends and political figures, Mr. Biden has voiced concerns about what he sees as the Clintons trying to capitalize on their public service, by giving paid speeches, for example.
Mr$. Clinton ha$ $aid repeatedly $he i$n’t compromi$ed by virtue of taking $peaking fee$ from intere$t group$. “Anybody who think$ they can buy me doe$n’t know me,” $he told the De$ Moine$ Regi$ter early this year.Mr. Biden and Mrs. Clinton served together in the Senate and then faced each other in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary. One person close to Mrs. Clinton’s previous campaign said she came to respect Mr. Biden’s debating skills but didn’t see him as a threat. Mr. Biden dropped out of the race after a poor showing in the Iowa caucuses.
After President Barack Obama took office, Mrs. Clinton was named secretary of state. As vice president Mr. Biden also had pieces of the foreign-policy portfolio.
She tended to be more hawkish and inclined to use force, while Mr. Biden was more skeptical of military intervention, those who worked with them say.
“In general, the vice president was more wary about the use of the military and more cautious in that sense,” said Leon Panetta, a former defense secretary in the Obama administration. “And [Mrs. Clinton] was more willing to take a stronger stance.”
Mr. Biden wasn’t happy about Mrs. Clinton’s push for an American air campaign in Libya in 2011, undertaken with Western allies, which led to the death of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. He worried about a power vacuum in the wake of Gadhafi’s fall, a former adviser said. Libya now has become fractured and destabilized, and Islamic State has spread inside the country.
In an interview on MSNBC earlier this month, Mrs. Clinton said it isn’t easy for nations to make the transition from dictatorship to democracy. As for taking military actions in Libya, she said the U.S. couldn’t simply turn its back on Arab allies that had asked for help in combating Gadhafi.
A sticky moment in dealings between Mr. Biden and Mrs. Clinton came last year, when he weighed a possible presidential bid. As Mr. Biden spent months deliberating, Mrs. Clinton said she was willing to give him space and time.
Yet Mr. Biden was angered by what he believed to be quiet efforts by her allies to try to dissuade him from running, blaming them for news reports highlighting past positions that might hurt him. In particular, he believed Clinton allies suggested he was cool to the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, people close to him say.
Mr. Biden is poised to be a high-profile surrogate if Mrs. Clinton captures the nomination. Friends hope if she wins the presidency she will tap Mr. Biden for special projects, perhaps as an informal roving ambassador.
Mrs. Clinton has hinted she has something in mind for Mr. Biden, saying, “History isn’t finished with Joe Biden” after he announced he wouldn’t run.
One friend, Delaware Sen. Tom Carper, said he has told Mr. Biden, “You’ll need to do everything you can to get her elected, and if she wins she will want you to be ambassador to the world.”