WASHINGTON (AP) -- Long past the time Joe Biden hoped to announce his plans for 2016, the vice president is still steeped in indecision, breeding uncertainty among Democrats eagerly looking for clues to whether he'll run for president.
For those hoping he'll enter the race, he's offering obvious winks: His staff is poring over filing deadlines and courting potential donors while Biden drops casual references to the presidential campaign into his public speeches.
"I'm not Bernie Sanders," he said Thursday evening, bringing up the Democratic presidential candidate unprompted during a speech on public-private partnerships in New York. "He's a great guy, by the way. He really is. I'm not a populist. But I'm a realist."
Behind the scenes, his small team of political advisers has been quietly reaching out to Democrats who could join the campaign in senior roles, including State Department official Marie Harf and former Obama campaign official Paul Tewes.
But those doubting he'll really run have ample evidence, too. The latest sign of wavering came as several people close to Biden said his decision is likely to drag on until later in October, making it highly unlikely he'll be on stage for the first Democratic primary debate on Oct. 13.
One directive from Biden has been clear: His decision will not be rushed, according to several people who have spoken to him in recent days.
While the prospect of running is still real, Biden is in the same place he's been for weeks: deeply conflicted about his family's readiness for the rigors of a campaign following his son's death in May, said the individuals, who requested anonymity to discuss private conversations. Biden has said repeatedly it will be a family decision, but the individuals said Biden has yet to hold a formal family sit-down to make a final call.
Amid the mixed signals, Democrats awaiting his decision say each day that passes leads to more skepticism that he'd have enough time to mount a competitive bid. David Axelrod, a longtime adviser to President Barack Obama, said Biden has "ceded a long head start to others," and making up for lost time gets harder and harder each day.
"His bet is that disaffection with Hillary (Rodham Clinton) will allow him to peel away some of her donors and operatives," Axelrod said. "He's a well-liked figure within the party, but unless she flat-out collapses — which I don't foresee — he would have his work cut out for him."
Harf, a senior adviser for strategic communications to Secretary of State John Kerry, has been in contact with Biden's team about a top communications job, people familiar with the planning said. She was deeply involved with the Iran nuclear negotiations, including the effort to line up votes from skeptical lawmakers on Capitol Hill, and also worked on Obama's re-election.
Tewes ran Obama's campaign operation in Iowa in 2008, winning accolades for the then-Illinois senator's dramatic victory in the caucuses in which he defeated both Biden and Clinton. Tewes, who has had a number of conversations with Biden's staff, went on to oversee the Democratic Party's transition from the primary to the general election in which Obama was elected president.
"The vice president is the only person who could get in the race at this juncture and have a real shot, but of course, time is of the essence," said Dan Pfeiffer, a former political adviser to Obama.
It's a tough dilemma for Biden friends and former aides who would be called upon to help in a campaign, but are being urged by Clinton's campaign to pledge their loyalty now. Calls to Biden's team to gauge his thinking receive answers that change day to day, leading to a tense situation that one former aide in regular contact with Biden's staff described as "everyone holding their breath."
Although CNN, which is hosting the first debate, has welcomed Biden's participation, he's expressed reluctance to let the debate schedule dictate his decision. One clear sign he won't be onstage on Oct. 13 is the fact he has yet to begin formally preparing to debate, said two individuals familiar with his planning.
Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who helped prepare Biden for his vice presidential debate in 2008, said Biden spent many days beforehand sequestered with briefing books and policy specialists, practicing crisp, 60-second answers to likely questions.
"You have to rehearse that," said Granholm, who is helping a super PAC associated with Clinton. "The real question for the longer strategy is: Can you get in this late?"