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2016 hopefuls find footing, test waters in Charlotte

 

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The political world is firmly focused on this year’s elections, but several of President Barack Obama's would-be successors may well find their launching pad here at the Democratic National Convention, using high-profile speaking slots and delegate buzz to boost their fortunes for the 2016 campaign.

Win or lose in November, the president has long said that 2012 will be his last run for elective office, meaning that Democrats likely will have a wide-open playing field to battle for the nomination in four years – depending on the intentions of two party heavyweights, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

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For now, some dark-horse candidates are looking to use their convention appearances as a platform to raise their profile for consideration four years from now. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley had a speech in prime time on Tuesday evening, and Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, whom Democrats also suggest has potential interest in a 2016 bid, speaks Thursday evening (though before broadcast networks break into their coverage).

Those two would-be candidates, among others, have also laid the groundwork for a future run with their work this week away from the cameras.

“I think the trick is to not come off as too unseemly. A potential candidate wants to network as much as possible, but they don't want to step into the current candidate's spotlight, either,” said Phil Singer, the deputy communications director on Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign.

Mario Anzuoni / REUTERS

In this file photo, Brian Schweitzer, Governor of the State of Montana, takes part in a panel titled

 

For lesser-known candidates like O’Malley and Schweitzer, the convention is an opportunity to build relationships with key state activists and potential donors who might assist their fledgling candidacies in a few years.

Both O'Malley, who is more widely perceived to have further national ambition, and Schweitzer, are doing little to tamp down that speculation with their schedules this week. Speaking engagements with Iowa delegates (their state holds the first nominating contest each cycle) are on both agendas, and Schweitzer is also meeting with delegates from New Hampshire, the site of the nation’s first 2016 primary and the second overall nominating contest.

Addressing the Democratic convention, Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley says, "Facts are facts: No President since Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the Great Depression inherited a worse economy, bigger job losses, or deeper problems from his predecessor. But President Obama is moving America forward, not back."

“I'm really not thinking about anything but helping the president get re-elected. And that's what I'm focused on entirely,” O’Malley said at the Iowa breakfast this morning in reference to his recently-formed PAC, a step usually seen as a precursor to running for president.

But O'Malley and Schweitzer are mostly the exception this year than the rule. Many of the potential 2016 candidates are keeping a low profile, gladly taking a back seat to the fanfare on Obama's behalf this week, although Newark Mayor Cory Booker has also been busy making the rounds, whether aspiring for a state-wide race in New Jersey or perhaps something bigger.

Newark Mayor Cory Booker energetically outlines the new National Democratic Party platform.

Arguably the most formidable potential candidate in 2016, whose foray into the race would threaten to overshadow any other Democrat, is nowhere to be found this week in Charlotte. Instead, that potential candidate – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – is literally halfway around the world on official business in Southeast Asia.

“If she wanted to do it, I think she'd have a very strong argument to make for why she should be the nominee and go onto the White House,” said Singer. “She's been pretty unequivocal in saying she doesn't want to run, so you have to take her at her word at this point.”

Delegates from Florida, a state in which Clinton beat Obama during the 2008 Democratic primary, gushed over the prospect of a second bid by the former first lady in 2016.

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“Who would I want to run in 2016? Hillary Clinton. That’s who I think would be great, if she wants to. I think she loves our country so much and she has so much experience and she would be a great president," said Elena McCullough, retired 24-year veteran of the Coast Guard from Wesley Chapel, Fla.

"Hillary has done such a fabulous job (as secretary of state); she is the best ever," added Beryle Buchman, a retired middle school public school English teacher from Plant City, Fla. "I think the fact that Obama appointed her shows that the party not only healed, but it’s stronger."

Pool / REUTERS

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shake hands at the Ziguangge Pavilion in the Zhongnanhai leaders' compound in Beijing September 5, 2012.

Of course, Mrs. Clinton's most prominent advocate – her husband, former President Bill Clinton – will speak during Wednesday evening's prime-time session. But that speech is extremely unlikely to be used as a platform to pump up Hillary Clinton's 2016 credentials, especially since that speech will be the one to formally nominate the president for re-election.

Likewise, another high-profile potential candidate – Vice President Joe Biden – will largely use his high-profile speaking slot on Thursday night to serve as a “character witness” for Obama, according to senior campaign officials. But Biden will nonetheless enjoy a large spotlight that evening, broadcasting his brand of folksiness before a national audience of potential voters.

The vice president has strikingly refused to rule out his own run for president in 2016, though he told New York Magazine in a profile piece published this week that he doesn't know if he'll run in 2016, even if he could guarantee he'd be elected.

"I don’t know what the hell four years from now, three years from now, is gonna be like," said Biden, who would be 73-years-old by the time of the 2016 election. But he noted in the same interview that he has "no intention" of drifting easily into retirement if he feels as good as he does now.

Both Clinton (2008) and Biden (1988 and 2008) have previously sought the presidency, Biden with more mixed results than Clinton.

But there are other candidates with scant national experience whose names are lumped in with the crowd of potential 2016 candidates who are doing very little to further their prospects in Charlotte.

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick tells the Democratic convention crowd it's time for Democrats to not let President Barack Obama to be "bullied out of office," saying, "we're Americans. We shape our own future."

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, for instance, will not deliver a speech at the convention, and is only set to make a brief daytrip to Charlotte. Other up-and-coming stars, like Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, who delivered an impassioned speech on Tuesday, and Bay State Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren could also harbor higher aspirations.

NBC's Tom Curry and Andrew Rafferty contributed to this report.

David Goldman / AP

Democrats gather in Charlotte, N.C., to officially nominate President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden as the party's candidates for the 2012 presidential election.