By Emily Flitter
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A group of Joe Biden supporters trying to build momentum for a White House run by the vice president is hiring paid staff in about a dozen crucial primary states.
The political action committee backing the vice president, Draft Biden, has begun building operations in 11 states holding primary elections on "Super Tuesday" in March 2016, two of the group's officials told Reuters, an important series of votes for any candidate seeking their party’s nomination.
Draft Biden doesn't have a firm number for how many staff in total it will hire in those states, said Josh Alcorn, a senior advisor to the group, but the recruitment process is under way.
Whatever the number, adding paid staffers in the 11 states suggests a growing confidence within Draft Biden that Biden will mount a challenge to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the front runners for the Democratic presidential nomination.
The expansion means Biden would have a far broader and more sophisticated infrastructure than previously known should he decide to enter the race.
Alcorn said Draft Biden is also adding paid staff in Florida, where the primary is held two weeks after Super Tuesday.
Until recently, the Super PAC had concentrated on establishing operations in the four earliest primary states - Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. It has about a dozen employees in those states.
Biden, 72, who is still coping with his son Beau’s death earlier this year, has said he is not sure whether he is up to the demands of the presidential contest.
Still, he has huddled with advisors and met with Democratic Party luminaries such as Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a darling of liberal Democrats for her staunch opposition to some of the risk-taking by Wall Street banks.
Some of Biden's supporters hope he will make up his mind before CNN's Oct. 13 debate for Democratic candidates.
Alcorn declined to say how much Draft Biden would spend on hiring staff in the Super Tuesday states: Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont and Virginia.
He also would not say how much money the group had raised so far, but "we're well on our way to reaching our $2.5 million-$3 million goal before he enters the race."
NARROWING THE GAP
The Draft Biden Super PAC can raise unlimited amounts of money, but federal rules prohibit it from coordinating directly with Biden's official election campaign, should he run.
The Super PAC's top brass say they don't plan to join any campaign but staff on the ground in each state could do so.
"My hope is that if he decides to get into the race all these volunteers that are helping us will basically abandon us and go help him," said Steve Schale, a Democratic political operative who is leading Draft Biden's operations in Florida.
Clinton and Sanders are leading Biden in early polls: About 16 percent of Democrats in a Reuters/Ipsos poll said they would vote for him, while 47 percent favored Clinton and 26 percent Sanders.
Both also have a significant head start in campaigning, but Biden's supporters believe sharply expanding staff in the Super Tuesday states would quickly narrow that gap. Neither Clinton nor Sanders has yet hired paid staff in every Super Tuesday state, said a Sanders spokesman and a Democratic strategist close to Clinton who did not want to be named.
The Clinton strategist was skeptical about Draft Biden's hiring plans. "I'm not sure they understand just how far behind they really are."
(Editing by Paul Thomasch and Ross Colvin)