With New York ex-mayor Michael Bloomberg declining to mount a 2020 White House bid, former vice president Joe Biden (pictured on August 30, 2018) is the most prominent middle-of-the-road Democrat considering entering the race (Robyn Beck)

Washington (AFP) – Will he or won’t he?

America’s political watchers are turning their attention to Joe Biden, impatient to know whether the popular Democrat  will actually join the rough-and-tumble 2020 race to challenge Donald Trump.

For months the former vice president and Washington establishment fixture — a consensus-building pragmatist — has been in a political limbo of sorts, repeatedly saying he will decide soon but not yet pulling the trigger.

He has watched from the sidelines as more than a dozen other Democrats, mainly from the party’s ascendant progressive wing and most with considerably less national exposure than Biden, crowd into the race.

That could leave a lane relatively wide open for a pragmatic centrist like Biden, especially after New York’s former mayor Michael Bloomberg, a high-profile middle-of-the-road politician, announced this week he will not be a candidate for the White House.

Three other Democrats also said they are steering clear: Obama-era US attorney general Eric Holder, Senator Jeff Merkley and the Democratic establishment doyenne herself, 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton.

That leaves Biden as the most prominent American still mulling a presidential campaign, and he would be a clear frontrunner in a crowded field.

With expectations building, an intriguing event has popped up on Biden’s schedule; he is the featured speaker at a Democratic Party dinner in his home state of Delaware.

– ‘Very difficult campaign’ –

Biden’s two previous presidential bids ended badly, and he declined to run in 2016 after his son died of cancer.

But he has topped several early 2020 polls, including this week’s Morning Consult survey of Democratic primary voters, 31 percent of whom say they would back Biden.

His closest competition is repeat candidate Bernie Sanders, who chalked up 27 percent support.

The senator from Vermont is a self-proclaimed Democratic socialist, and it is telling that the liberal policies he pushed during the last presidential race, such as universal health care and debt-free college, have been embraced by several 2020 candidates.

They appear to be riding a wave of progressivism that has seen formidable young liberals like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez win seats in Congress, and has led Republicans including Trump to brand them as “socialists.”

Biden is largely in step with progressives on social issues like abortion and gay rights, while being careful to stress his support for workers, boosting the middle class, and managing the US debt.

“Uncle Joe” has impeccable ties to white working-class voters in states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania that Trump snatched in 2016, and winning them back will be crucial for Democrats.

But can Biden, a 76-year-old white male, compete from the middle in a moment when his party is diversifying and shifting to the left?

“I don’t think Joe Biden represents that new thing that we need,” voter Owen Evans said as part of a six-Democrat focus group that aired Tuesday on CNN.

“We need a new economy, we need a new politics, and we need someone different,” he said.

“To be honest, senator Biden really comes from the good-old-boy politics of the past,” interjected Russell Banks.

Biden experienced a hint of his challenge with progressives last week when he awkwardly praised current Vice President Mike Pence, who has opposed expanding rights for gay Americans.

“You’ve just called America’s most anti-LGBT elected leader ‘a decent guy,'” Cynthia Nixon, an actress and former New York gubernatorial candidate who is in a same-sex marriage.

“Please consider how this falls on the ears of our community.”

Last week, at a forum in Delaware, Biden acknowledged that his family was urging him to run.

But he said he was still deliberating whether he should take them “through what would be a very, very, very difficult campaign” against Trump.

“I don’t think he’s likely to stop at anything, whoever he runs against,” Biden said according to Delaware public radio.

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