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Warming the bench

Second-string Democratic candidates don't mind waiting on the way to (maybe, maybe) winning

Warming the bench

COLUMBIA, S.C.- In the children's section of the Happy Bookseller in Columbia, S.C., Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) stands on a wooden chair near the pop-up books, apologizing to a handful of supporters for his late arrival. About two dozen people are standing in a short line clutching copies of Biden's autobiography and waiting for his signature. The Democratic presidential candidate is still wearing his characteristic wide grin but admits that it's been a long day.

Long days are no strangers to presidential campaigns. But the payoff for front-runners like Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), and John Edwards is immediate: boosted poll numbers and bursting campaign coffers.

But for the handful of second-tier Democratic candidates like Biden, the results are far from impressive: Biden has raised millions less than the front-runners and hovers at around 3 percent in the polls. What keeps these underdogs in a race that some pundits are declaring is over? Surprise: After the crowd at Happy Bookseller dwindled, Biden told WORLD he stays in the race-because he believes he can win.

Every candidate claims he can win, but Biden says he has the numbers to prove it: This time four years ago, Howard Dean was the Democratic front-runner in the last presidential race and a clear favorite to win the party's nomination. John Kerry hovered near the bottom of the polls-numbers similar to Biden's current polling data. "And look what happened," says Biden. "This thing is wide open."

Dean's infamous yalp during a campaign appearance helped doom his candidacy, but Biden says he's not waiting for the front-runners to stumble. Instead, he's waiting for people to make up their minds. The senator points out that many of the current polls ask voters which candidate they would choose if they had to vote today, but many voters haven't yet made a final decision. Biden says that makes the current polls "literally meaningless."

Still, Biden and other candidates desperately need to gain major momentum to catch up with the front-runners' campaigns by the first primaries in January. Something other than believing they can win must drive the second-tier candidates to stay in the race, and Biden's own campaign offers a glimpse of what motivates them to continue: a mixture of personal drive and a pulpit for disseminating ideas.

Biden, 64, was first elected to the Senate in 1972 at the age of 29. Less than a month later, the young attorney's wife and infant daughter were killed in a car accident. The couple's two sons survived. A devastated Biden decided to forgo a Senate career, but former senator Ernest "Fritz" Hollings (D-S.C.) convinced him to stay. Biden threw himself into parenting and political work, and that personal drive "saved my life," he says.

Biden's presidential run gives the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee a pulpit for his political ideas. Biden is an ardent opponent of the war in Iraq, and he recently introduced an amendment to decentralize power in the country and create separate regions of governing power. White House officials have criticized the plan, but the amendment enjoyed bipartisan support, including the endorsement of Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), one of Biden's most conservative colleagues.

Biden touts his ability to build consensus with Republicans but still satisfies his Democratic base with liberal positions on social issues and antagonism toward Bush administration policy. His penchant for blunt one-liners leaves some wondering if Biden has the political savvy for a presidential run. (Biden infamously said that Obama was "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean." He later clarified his remarks.)

Bill Richardson's personal drive has roots in family ties as well. The governor of New Mexico was born in California to a Mexican mother and American father. The family lived in Mexico City until Richardson was 13. The candidate, now 59, is the first Hispanic to seek the Democratic nomination for the presidency. His candidacy has gained some traction, and he trails Edwards by only a few percentage points in some states.

Though Richardson's heritage looms large in border states, the governor has made the Iraq War the focus of his candidacy. He claims to be more anti-war than the front-runners, saying he would remove more troops more quickly.

But Richardson hasn't been able to avoid the immigration issue. Earlier this year, he opposed the president's immigration legislation, saying it would separate families. The governor has also favored allowing illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses and has opposed a border fence, but he insists he opposes amnesty. He resents Republican candidates who he says compete to be "the most anti-immigrant."

"That is not going to help them in a general election," Richardson says. But he concedes: "It might help them in a primary."

For Dennis Kucinich, finding help in the primaries is an uphill battle. The congressman from Ohio falls in the bottom three of Democratic presidential candidates, with about 2 percent of the vote in recent polls. In his 2004 presidential bid, Kucinich garnered about 1 percent of the vote.

But the candidate is accustomed to working alone and thrives on his unique positions, both personally and politically. The Ohio native is the oldest of seven children who lived with his family in 21 different places by the time he was 17. Now a 61-year-old vegan, the congressman, who is twice divorced, recently married an English woman who is 30 years younger than he is.

A self-described "peace candidate," Kucinich is the only Democratic candidate who voted against the Iraq War. The congressman also votes against funding the war, and he recently introduced a House resolution to impeach Vice President Dick Cheney.

The candidate's domestic agenda is as radical as his foreign policy ideas: He proposes a not-for-profit health-care system that he calls "Medicare for all." Kucinich dismisses the notion that his ideas won't resonate with the American public, saying his positions are "mainstream."

Mike Gravel doesn't try to be mainstream. The retired U.S. senator from Alaska has made his mark on the Democratic nominating contest by being the most contrary candidate in the race. He scolds his fellow candidates for being too soft, and he floats over-the-top proposals: In a debate in South Carolina earlier this year, Gravel, 77, said the United States not only should pull out of Iraq, but that Congress should make it a felony to stay.

During the same debate, Gravel asserted that the United States has "no important enemies." He asked NBC moderator Brian Williams: "Who are you afraid of, Brian?" and later asked Obama: "Who do you want to nuke?"

After the debate, Gravel acknowledged: "I get too angry." Voters may agree: At the end of the second quarter, Gravel had a dismal $31,000 in campaign cash on hand.

Chris Dodd has much more money, but not much more support. At the end of the second quarter, the senator from Connecticut had about $6.3 million cash on hand for his presidential bid. But Dodd, 63, garnered only 1 percent of likely Democratic voters in recent polls.

Like the other Democratic candidates, Dodd has made ending the war his chief campaign theme. He's also emphasized civil rights for foreign detainees and has pledged $1 billion to build more affordable housing for senior citizens.

In the process, Dodd has sought to rebuild the reputation of his late father, Thomas Dodd, a Democratic senator who was censured by the Senate in 1967 for diverting $116,000 in campaign funds for personal use. His father took responsibility for his actions, and Dodd remained devoted to him until he died four years later.

Dodd's brother, Thomas Dodd Jr., recently told The New York Times that he thought his brother's political career was closely intertwined with his father's. As for his brother's tenacity in a race behind so many front-runners, he added: "I don't know what the thinking is on this thing, but he sure is enjoying it."

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie is national editor of WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously worked for the Charlotte World. Jamie has covered politics, disasters, religion, and more for WORLD. She resides in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.