Joe Biden and the Padlocked Gate

It was October of 2007 and I was sitting in the empty, cavernous General Aviation terminal.

Chris Dodd showed up alone. He had asked me to accompany him to New Hampshire for the presidential debate at Dartmouth.

"I have good news and bad news," he said, "Our plane is here but Biden is bumming a ride with us."

I wondered if any other presidential candidate had ever hitchhiked to a debate and been picked up by another one. Both Senators were polling at about one-percent in the race for the Democratic nomination. But Dodd was just a little bit better off. He could lease a plane and Biden didn't have the money to do even that.

The Dodd plane, a twin-engine prop, was barely passable as a craft for two senior US Senators running for the nation's highest office.

In came Joe along with Tony Blinken. Tony ran the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which Biden chaired and Dodd served on.

Dodd jumped up and, much to my surprise, the two Senators high-fived. They were celebrating their "No" votes just an hour earlier against more involvement in Iraq. And they were overjoyed that Senator Hillary Clinton had voted "yes."

On the plane we sat two-facing-two and I was across from Joe. The conversation was animated for most of the three hour flight. You'd never know those two were opponents. Neither appeared to be prepping for the debate.

We landed at a fenced-off strip in a town near Hanover, the debate venue. There were two white vans waiting for us and the two candidates went their separate ways.

Neither of them had a very notable -- or even noticeable -- performance that night. The race was fast becoming Obama v. Clinton.

The next morning the two campaigns morphed back together, all of us in one van. As we approached the runway, we had to pass through a gate. But the gate was padlocked.

We could see our small plane and, in the background, two sleek jets, one with an "Obama" banner, the other with "Clinton."

Joe was sitting in the front passenger seat.

"Blow the horn," he told the young driver. After about ten minutes of that, a tall, thin, light-skinned black man walked up to the gate on the other side of the fence.

Arms spread wide and hands gripping the chain-link fence, he smiled and said "sorry guys; the airport's closed."

"Barack, open the damn gate!" Biden shouted back as he got out of the van and put his face against the fence.

"Can't do it Joe," said Senator Obama, "When you get a plane appropriate for a presidential candidate, we'll think about letting you in." Barack finally hailed a maintenance guy and we drove through.

The rest, as they say, is history. Joe and Obama are a solid team now. Their legacies are deep and meaningful and will stand the test of time.

But I can't help thinking back to that moment. Obama and Clinton riding high. Joe and Chris at barely one percent. Back on our plane, heading back to DC, across from me, Joe had his head back and eyes half opened.

What was he thinking about? The futility of the effort? The enormous difficulty in breaking through to be a real contender?

Who knew what the political gods had in store? Who knew that both would be former Senators relatively soon, but that one of them would remain to preside over that body?

If the Vice President enters this race, he'll be an immediate contender with approval ratings higher than the presumptive nominee. And he'll be riding on the biggest plane in the whole campaign.

But all of us who have been candidates, winners and losers, know the difference between being a potential or a real one. In this race, Joe would immediately be under pressure, under attack and the target of intense and sometimes seemingly insane social media scrutiny.

He may, metaphorically speaking, be facing that padlocked fence again, with no Barack on the other side to open it.

Toby Moffett is a former member of Congress from Connecticut and a Special Adviser at Mayer Brown, LLP.