By Jeff Mason
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Backers of Vice President Joe Biden are reaching out to donors and activists in the gay and lesbian community to line up financial and political support if Biden, who endorsed same-sex marriage before Hillary Clinton, decides to run for president.
Draft Biden, the outside Super PAC that is laying the groundwork for a run, believes it can tap into a disproportionately large number of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) members of the Democratic fundraising pool to support Biden instead of the former secretary of state.
Gays and lesbians were a critical part of President Barack Obama's coalition in 2008 and 2012. They could play a pivotal role in a close 2016 primary race by tipping progressive-leaning voters toward one candidate through dollars and advocacy.
Draft Biden has made contact with donors and plans a concerted effort in the coming weeks to reach gay groups in early voting states such as New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina, and Nevada to "talk about the vice president's long-standing leadership on equality issues," said Brad Bauman, a Draft Biden adviser.
It will not be easy.
Clinton, the front-runner for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, has lined up high-profile LGBT support early and has made gay rights a centerpiece of her campaign.
But Biden's cheerleaders see an opening for the vice president. In 2012, he surprised the White House by endorsing gay marriage during a television interview, forcing Obama to come out in support of same-sex unions earlier than he had planned.
"If Joe Biden does enter the presidential race, he’s going to get very strong support from the LGBT community and deservedly so," said Jon Cooper, an openly gay former Clinton supporter who now serves as Draft Biden's national finance chair.
He noted an estimate that one in six of Obama's fundraising "bundlers" were gay, a sign of their strategic and financial importance. Cooper said the response from gay donors for a Biden run had been positive so far.
"There are some that have already offered support to Draft Biden, many others that have told (me) that if Biden announces, they’re absolutely on board," he said.
Clinton backers, however, cast doubt on the enthusiasm of LGBT fundraisers for other candidates only months before the start of early state contests to decide the Democratic nominee.
"I think it’s too late," said Steve Elmendorf, a Clinton fan and former chair of the Victory Fund, a group that provides financial and political support to gay candidates.
"The vast majority of people I know in the community are already for Hillary. And I don’t think that’s going to change.”
Gay activist groups, including the influential Washington-based Human Rights Campaign, have so far largely declined to say whether members would side with Biden over Clinton in a primary race that would be dominated by gay-friendly candidates.
Duncan Osborne, a member of Queer Nation, a group that fights discrimination against LGBT people, noted Clinton had vulnerabilities despite her broad support.
"There are undoubtedly people who don't like the email stuff, and it makes me uncomfortable," he said, referring to Clinton's controversial use of a private email server for official business while she was secretary of state. "I'm sure there are other people in the LGBT community who share that discomfort."
Draft Biden said many fundraisers were still uncommitted. The group is also targeting donors who have sided with less prominent Democratic presidential candidates.
"(Biden) has a history of great accomplishment and should he enter the field ... it becomes a real issue for me," said a gay rights activist who raised $400,000 for Obama's 2008 campaign and now supports Martin O'Malley, the former governor of Maryland, whose campaign has not gained traction in the polls.
"Do I jump ship? And I’m really pondering this, very heavily," said the donor, who requested anonymity.
Even though Biden came out in support of gay marriage before Clinton, some gay rights activists say they are still sticking with the Democratic front-runner.
"No one will ever forget what (Biden) did for the community and we’ll be eternally grateful to him for it,” said Roberta Kaplan, the attorney whose successful argument before the Supreme Court resulted in it striking down elements of the Defense of Marriage Act, a law that denied federal benefits to married gays and lesbians.
Kaplan said the gay community's gratitude to Biden did not supersede its history with Clinton, whose support for LGBT issues went back years before same-sex marriage was a hot political topic.
"It’s an enduring love, I think, for Hillary Clinton because we know she’s been with us for such a long time and at a time when the world was a very, very different place.”
(Reporting by Jeff Mason)