WASHINGTON — As hearings on Robert H. Bork's Supreme Court nomination ground on Tuesday, the senator in the center chair tried to maintain his composure and keep his mind on the serious business at hand.
But for Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del), Senate Judiciary Committee chairman and beleaguered presidential candidate, this was no easy task. At times he seemed preoccupied and stared off into space. He left the committee room often to meet with supporters.
When reporters asked whether he would continue in the race, Biden said: "I don't know. I think so. We are going to see whether I am going to get a chance to make my case, or whether events have overwhelmed it."
Some Biden aides believe he will make up his mind how to proceed this week. "It's like playing three-dimensional checkers," one said.
One dimension, as it appears to his advisers, is Biden's determination to restore his reputation, which has been badly tarnished in the past 10 days by revelations ranging from unattributed borrowings of rhetoric to false claims about his academic record, all of which, at best, reflected an unseemly slovenliness toward the truth, and, at worst, raised grave questions about his integrity.
"He certainly isn't pleased with the caricature of himself which has emerged," said one aide.
The second dimension is Biden's commitment to defeating the Bork nomination. This is a concern shared by many key interest groups in his party and a cause that many feel far overshadows in importance Biden's own political ambitions.
The third dimension is Biden's candidacy. In this regard, Biden aides--many of them seasoned in previous presidential campaigns--did not try to deceive themselves. "If you try to do the third," said one senior staffer, referring to continuing the candidacy, "it makes it much harder to do the first two."
The general assessment in a strategy council held by the Biden staff on Tuesday was that, as one participant put it, "We've obviously taken on a lot of water" since Sept. 12. It was on that day it was disclosed that Biden had used a highly personal, dramatic passage from British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock in an Iowa campaign debate without giving any credit to Kinnock.
Odds Against Recovery
"By any standard, it would be difficult to recover--something like a 50-to-1 shot," the adviser estimated.
Some other Democrats saw no point in even trying to compute the odds. "There's nothing to talk about, so far as most people are concerned," said one well-connected party official. "All the conversation that goes on about his (Biden's) candidacy is post-mortems."
Adding to the impact of the revelations, the source said, was Biden's attempt to explain his false claims for his scholastic record on the grounds that he had lost his temper--scarcely the sort of temperament deemed presidential.
"The Republicans could build a dandy flashing-red-phone commercial around that," he said, referring to a 1984 ad that Walter F. Mondale used to question whether voters wanted his rival, Gary Hart, to answer the hot line in the White House.
Still, not everyone close to Biden was prepared to throw in the towel. Some aides argued that in the long run, the surest way for the senator to restore his reputation would be, as one of them put it, "to fight his way through to the nomination."
After hours of talk, the advisers realized they had gone as far as they could go by themselves. The next step would be to meet with the candidate Tuesday night and then leave him to his own thoughts.
"All the cards will be on the table," said one, but only Biden can decide how to play the hand--or whether to fold his cards.
In another development Tuesday, the Federal Election Commission approved Biden's request for federal matching funds. The commission verified that Biden has raised over $100,000 in 20 states with no contribution over $250, the formula of eligibility for matching funds.