"All of the gravity will be revolving around Biden and Clinton," said Matt Bennett of Third Way, the centrist think tank. "Until they make a decision one way or another, it will be very difficult for anyone else to do anything else, frankly, other than some basic groundwork-laying."
That process has already begun in earnest among some Democrats eager to fill the void should neither Clinton nor Biden run. Consider the parade of elected officials who visited the Iowa delegation during the Democratic National Convention earlier this year: Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, and even Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker.
Among them, O'Malley is the best equipped to launch a presidential bid. The charismatic two-term governor has made a name for himself as a fierce attack dog for Obama's agenda and has filled his Rolodex as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association. "If you were to line up Martin on the environment, on education, transportation, energy, on the core domestic issues, he's got a decent record, so that's one of the ingredients," said John Willis, a political analyst at the University of Baltimore.
Andrew Cuomo, the disciplined New York governor and son of iconic Democrat Mario Cuomo, is a name also frequently on the lips of Democratic operatives when it comes to 2016. His first years in office, highlighted by his successful push for gay marriage, are considered a major success, and his approval rating hovers in the 70s. If Cuomo runs, he could very well be the race's early front-runner. But speculating about his ambitions remains premature, given that Cuomo is only halfway through his first term. "He's not thinking about this. What he's thinking about is how to make sure he's in position to think about it," said Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf.
The wish list for liberals nonetheless stretches even longer to include those who will be waiting in the wings as the Obama administration embarks on its second term: Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, Sen.-elect Elizabeth Warren of the Bay State, and Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
None of the potential contenders — save for Biden, Clinton, and the well-connected Cuomo — have the infrastructure, organization, or fundraising prowess required to launch a presidential bid, but perhaps the biggest encouragement for these long shots comes from recent history: An obscure state senator from Illinois managed to build a formidable campaign and ascend to the White House as the first African-American president in only four years.
The Democratic lineup is striking for two reasons. For one, it's not deep. Aside from Biden and Clinton, the only first-tier candidates generally expected to run are Cuomo and O'Malley (and again, Cuomo has been governor for only two years). Although Patrick, Warner, and a few others could rise to that category, their candidacies are little more than rumors for now.