WASHINGTON (AP) — Vice President Joe Biden's potential path to the White House grew murkier on Wednesday as Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton emerged strengthened from the party's first debate of the 2016 race, while Bernie Sanders solidified himself as her chief rival.
Hunger among some Democrats for Biden to enter the race has built for months amid concerns about low enthusiasm among voters for Clinton and questions about her use of a private email account and server.
While Biden's supporters and confidantes insisted he isn't taking his cues from Clinton, she nonetheless delivered a strong performance in the debate, gliding over potential hurdles while casting herself as the natural heir and protector of President Barack Obama's legacy.
"The vice president would still be a formidable candidate, but there is no question that Hillary Clinton assuaged a lot of Democrats nervous about the strength of her candidacy," said Dan Pfeiffer, a former longtime political adviser to President Barack Obama.
Meanwhile, Sanders' campaign said Wednesday it raised nearly $2 million in the hours after the debate, while social media metrics showed he was the most-searched candidate on Google and most-discussed on Facebook and Twitter.
While Biden's indecision had been expected to loom conspicuously over the debate stage, the vice president instead was a non-entity. His name didn't come up once during the two-hour event, and he acknowledged Wednesday the party's field of candidates appeared to be in good shape without him.
"I was proud," Biden said. "I thought every one of those folks last night — my own prejudice — I thought they all did well."
He did not respond to a shouted question about when he'll announce his decision, and Clinton refused to comment on the impact Biden's indecision may have on Democratic party chances in the general election.
"I'm going to continue to run my campaign and make my case for my candidacy," she said after a campaign event in Henderson, Nevada. "I just think he needs to decide what's best for him and his family."
People close to Biden said he echoed in private what he said in public: Clinton's performance was impressive. Yet they said Biden was adamant that his still unmade decision about whether to mount another campaign would not be affected by calculations about Clinton's viability.
The individuals spoke on condition of anonymity, because they were not authorized to comment publicly about the private discussions.
Biden is keenly aware that any true opening for him to run and win stems directly from Clinton's perceived weakness as a front-runner. In conversations with his longtime supporters and friends, Biden has described Clinton as vulnerable to a challenge from another prominent Democrat.
Yet if Biden possesses a compelling case for why Democrats need him to run, Clinton's strength in the debate only furthered questions about exactly what that case may be.
The prevailing factor in Biden's deliberations remains his and his family's readiness for the emotional rigors of a campaign following his son's death from brain cancer in May, according to several individuals who have spoken to Biden recently.
On multiple occasions, Biden has said he may not be ready to decide until critical campaign deadlines have passed and it becomes too late — likely by the beginning of November, the individuals said.
While Clinton herself has given Biden space to make the decision on his timeline, John Podesta, Clinton's campaign chairman and Obama's former senior counselor, said it was time for him to make a decision.
But Biden's most ardent supporters, including the Draft Biden super PAC urging him to run, insisted one strong showing by Clinton changes nothing.
Steve Schale, who ran Obama's presidential campaigns in Florida and is advising Draft Biden, said the performance of Sanders and the other candidates on the stage offered evidence of why there's still a window for Biden to run.
"He would be the only competition," Schale said. "There's a huge opening for another adult to walk on that stage."
Associated Press writer Lisa Lerer contributed to this report from Henderson, Nevada.
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