Sweeps Night: Clinton Versus Biden

With Bill Clinton scheduled to speak shortly before Joe Biden tonight, it seems a logical question to ask: Will the former president upstage the party’s vice-presidential nominee?

This is no small concern for Democrats, since Biden’s speech is crucial on two levels. For one, Biden – even though he ran for president this year and has been a staple on Sunday morning newsmaker shows for years – is unknown to tens of millions of voters. A primetime speech carried live by every broadcast network and cable news channel represents his best chance to lock in a favorable impression with these voters. Plus, his speech figures to serve as the most visible and aggressive attack on John McCain of the entire Democratic convention.

On the other hand, no one really knows what Clinton will say, and his public comments to date have only fed talk that he is resentful of Barack Obama and his campaign and that he wouldn’t mind seeing his fellow Democrat lose in November – especially since such a loss would make his wife the clear favorite for the 2012 nomination. It’s hard to believe that Clinton won’t offer a strong endorsement of Obama in his speech – he’s savvy enough to know what would happen if he doesn’t – but, given his status as a former president, he probably won’t go after McCain with the intensity that Biden will. Clearly, Obama’s campaign would much rather have voters talking about Biden tomorrow morning, and not Bill Clinton.

And yet it’s worth noting that the use of Wednesday night at conventions to showcase V.P. nominees is a relatively recent phenomenon, begun in 1996 when Al Gore’s acceptance speech was moved to the night before Bill Clinton’s – a way of making Gore a more singular figure as he began to lay the groundwork for his own presidential campaign in 2000. Prior to that, V.P. and presidential nominees traditionally spoke back-to-back on Thursday night at both parties’ conventions. In fact, the Republicans didn’t make the adjustment until 2000; when Jack Kemp accepted the V.P. nomination in ’96, he did so minutes before Bob Dole took the stage to claim the presidential nod.

So if Joe Biden is overshadowed tonight, at least he won’t be the first V.P. nominee to suffer such a fate.

Sweeps Night: Clinton Versus Biden