190317 Joe Biden
Joe Biden Image Credit: AFP

Dover: What a tease.

Veteran Democrat Joe Biden campaigned for president in all but name Saturday, declining to announce his 2020 plans but dropping hints, including a significant gaffe that suggests he will soon be all in.

As the number of White House hopefuls keeps growing — at least 14 Democrats are officially in the race — Biden is now the last major politician who is contemplating jumping in.

But the former vice-president has maintained the suspense.

He received a hero’s welcome in his home state of Delaware, where he told nearly 1,000 party brokers and leaders at a Democratic dinner that it was time to restore America’s “backbone,” but also that political “consensus” was necessary to move beyond the toxic tone of the Trump era.

“Our politics has become so mean, so petty, so vicious, that we can’t govern ourselves — in many cases, even talk to one another,” he said.

Then, a startling slip by the notoriously gaffe-prone Biden — perhaps an accident, perhaps a perfectly placed tease as he inches towards a presidential campaign.

“I’m told I get criticised by the new left. I have the most progressive record of anybody running for the United” — and then he catches himself. “Anybody who WOULD run.”

A murmur rippled through the crowd, and within moments his diehard supporters rose to their feet, chanting “Run Joe run.”

“I didn’t mean it!” he chuckled, looking down before crossing himself as the applause lingered.

“Of anybody who would run,” he repeated. “Because folks, we have to bring this country back together again.”

Biden, 76, sounded as if he was rehearsing a campaign speech, repeating lines about the promise of the 21st century and American resolve that he had used earlier in the week at a Washington speech to firefighters.

“There’s so much at stake,” he said about the next election, calling it the most important in a century. “Our core values are being shredded.”

The Democratic senior statesman has been mulling a challenge against Trump for months.

While he tops nearly all early polls for the Democratic nominations race, he is under pressure to enter the field soon, or bow out.

One of his potential rivals, the former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, launched his presidential bid Thursday and spent three straight days campaigning in the early voting state of Iowa, sucking up much of the political oxygen.

Biden, a consensus-building pragmatist and Washington establishment fixture, is almost certain to kick off his campaign by mid-April, sources recently told The New York Times.

“Folks, as I said, we’re literally in the battle for the soul of America, and an overwhelming need to restore the backbone of America: the working class, the middle class,” he said in the unmistakable rhetoric of a candidate.

Biden mulled a presidential bid after eight years as Barack Obama’s deputy, but he declined after his son Beau died of cancer in early 2015.

For many, it was a relief to hear their state’s favourite son sounding like a candidate once again.

“He doesn’t just look like he’s back, he looks like he’s ready for a fight,” Delaware Governor John Carney said, firing up the crowd.

“In my humble opinion, we have never needed Joe Biden more than we need him right now.”

Other Democrats in the audience agreed.

“Let me tell you something, it’s Joe time,” Stefanie Thompson, a vice-president at a financial services company, told AFP as she rattled off several Biden attributes she sees as crucial for the next president.

“Civility, experience, professionalism, and grace — qualities that only Joe has out of this very crowded field.”

But not everyone agreed that Biden ought to remain eloquent and above the fray should he take on Trump.

“I think we tried eloquent before. Maybe we need to fight harder this time,” said Jeffrey Sytsma-Sherman, a Delaware Health and Social Services employee.

Biden was ready with lines of attack, assailing Trump for “tearing down the guardrails of our democracy” by weakening hallowed institutions like the independent judiciary.

He also slammed the dissolution of the “basic bargain” of corporations shared their financial successes with their employees.

Biden wouldn’t elaborate, but dropped a final tantalising hint: “You’re going to be hearing a hell of a lot more about it from me.”