Look for a mad dash by little-known candidates if Hillary doesn't run in 2016

"Here comes Hillary," announced CNN recently in a breathless story on the likelihood that former first lady, senator, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will run for president. The network, along with most other news outlets, interpreted her recent speech to her husband's foundation as a sign of future White House ambitions, just as the entire political commentariat viewed her decision to start a Twitter account as a sure bet she's going to run.

It's not just the press. The Democratic clerisy, from grass-roots organizers to insider strategists to big-money donors, fully expects a Clinton candidacy. The 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, it appears, is Hillary's for the asking.

But what if she doesn't ask? What if Hillary Clinton chooses not to run, or for some reason is not able to run? After such a deep emotional investment in a Hillary candidacy, do Democrats have a Plan B?

If by Plan B you mean a two-time presidential loser and lifetime Washington player, then the answer is yes. The Democrats have Vice President Joe Biden.

"Biden would be the instant front-runner, in a class by himself," says one Democratic strategist on what might happen if Mrs. Clinton doesn't run. "He would inherit an awful lot of the Obama machine," says another party politico. "He's definitely going to run if she doesn't."

But Biden would also inherit the Obama baggage. And that means more than just the legacy of a difficult second term. Although Obama remains popular with Democratic voters, he hasn't always endeared himself to the people who help make future presidents. "Obama has not built up a lot of goodwill or confidence in the Democratic establishment or, more importantly, among Democratic donors and members of Congress," says one party insider. "Biden is a beloved figure, but there is a price to pay for the association."

Then there is Biden's age. He'll be 74 on Inauguration Day, 2017 -- five years older than Ronald Reagan, the nation's oldest president, when he was sworn in. If Biden were to serve two terms, he would leave the White House at age 82. Democrats will tell themselves that's OK -- two different strategists interviewed here claimed that "70 is the new 50" -- but many voters will likely conclude that's just too old to hold the world's most demanding job.

It's more than a little ironic that Democrats find themselves in this fix because Barack Obama chose to follow the example of George W. Bush by choosing a vice president with almost no chance of succeeding him. That's the way leadership is handed off when a party wins the White House, but Dick Cheney's health and age made succession impossible, leaving the Republican field wide open in 2008. Now Obama's choice of Biden has done the same thing for Democrats. If the vice president were 15 years younger, there would be no question he'd be the party's next nominee.

As Democrats look at Biden, the twin factors of age and closeness to Obama point to a vexing question: How can the vice president credibly talk to voters about the future? "Biden cannot be a third Obama term -- we learned that in the Gore campaign," said the first party strategist. "He has to run with a fresh new start and a vision for the future." It's not clear whether anyone really believes he can do that.

But if not Biden, who? Is there a non-Biden Democratic Plan B? The answer is no.

If Hillary stays on the sidelines, a dark horse could steal the race, Among the possibilities: Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

But all have what could generously be called stature problems. Ask insiders about O'Malley, for example -- an East Coast governor who has worked hard to put himself into position to run -- and this is the answer from one pol: "Right now, he would be a perfect No. 2 if the No. 1 looked for somebody who has been a very strong governor. He passed gay marriage, he did guns -- he has done the big issues. But his profile is still not high enough for him to be a first-tier candidate." Of course, in a non-Hillary field, O'Malley's profile would be high; he would probably be a first-tier candidate from the get-go. But today he seems an also-ran.

Cuomo would have a higher profile simply because of his name and the fact that he comes from the nation's money and media capital. But he's also had a checkered tenure in office, first angering the Democratic base by crossing some unions and then pleasing the true believers by working on behalf of gay marriage and Draconian gun-control measures. At the same time, Cuomo has fallen short on a goal to control corruption in New York's scandal-plagued capital. "First, he has to clean up Albany," says one of the strategists. "He has his challenges."

Mark Warner appears to have the whole resume: He's been a successful businessman, making millions in the cellphone industry. (Warner likes to joke than when audiences wince at the sound of a ringing phone, all he hears is "ka-ching, ka-ching.") He's also been the governor of key swing state Virginia and is now the senior senator from the Old Dominion. As impressive as that sounds, Warner has spent years courting key Democratic constituencies, and there's no evidence romance has bloomed.

Others? Warren would be a favorite of anti-business activists, and along with Gillibrand and Klobuchar would benefit by being a woman in a non-Hillary race. Hickenlooper could have a heartland appeal. Patrick would be the only African-American. But there are no stars.

Back in 1988, when George H.W. Bush ran to succeed the eight-year presidency of Ronald Reagan, Democrats fielded such a weak field that the group became known collectively as "the Seven Dwarfs." (One of the dwarfs just happened to be Biden.) Now, Democrats could find themselves with another cast of mini-candidates.

Given all that, one might conclude that Democrats fear the party is doomed if Hillary Clinton doesn't run. But that's not at all true.

Of course, they worry about what might happen if their star candidate is not on the ballot. But party insiders believe Democrats have a structural advantage regardless of who runs, due to demographic changes and the formerly red or purple states that have turned fully blue in recent years.

"Democrats start out with nearly a lock on 242 electoral votes, and Republicans start out with 102," notes the second strategist. "They can win in a number of different ways, while Republicans have to win everything." Beyond the numbers, Democrats believe deep down that today's Republican Party is in such a mess that it will find a way to alienate voters no matter who runs on the Democratic side.

"There is a structural advantage for Democrats because Republicans just don't get it," says a third party insider. "You cannot become president today if you're going to demonize undocumented workers who are part of the culture, or if you're going to demonize the gay community, or refer to 47 percent of the country as slackers."

So Democrats remain confident. And of course, they still expect Clinton to run. But even if she does, things might not turn out as swimmingly as they hope. On the one hand, as the first woman nominee, Clinton would be another history-making candidate, allowing Democrats to relive some of the thrill they felt when they chose the first black president.

But voters usually tire of the party in power after eight years. And Clinton will not be the new face Obama was in 2008. When 2016 comes, she will have been a national public figure for 24 years, since Bill Clinton was first elected president in 1992.

Many analysts believe politicians have a "sell-by" date -- that is, if they have not won the White House within a dozen or so years after entering the national scene, they never will. When 2016 arrives, Mrs. Clinton will be long past her date. She'll also be 69 years old, just a few months younger than Reagan. And she's had had a significant health scare in the past year after fainting, falling and suffering a concussion and a blood clot in her head. It's possible that, like John McCain, who lost a step between his 2000 and 2008 runs, Clinton could be a little slower and a little less dynamic the second time around.

But odds are still that she will be on the trail come 2016. If not, look for Democrats to engage in a bit of magical thinking, hoping that one of today's no-names will rocket to glory the way the unknown Barack Obama did after his speech to the party's convention in 2004. Maybe that will happen; maybe there's a rock star waiting to be discovered deep inside Martin O'Malley or Kirsten Gillibrand. But it's more likely that Democrats will face a long and tiring struggle to find a new leader in a post-Obama, post-Clinton world.

Byron York, The Washington Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at byork@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday at washingtonexaminer.com.