I repeat: Unless she’s indicted, Hillary Clinton will win the Democratic nomination. I wrote that six weeks ago, amid fevered dreams of a Clinton collapse and a Joe Biden rescue. That those were a mirage is all the more obvious after Tuesday’s debate. The reason, then as now, is simple: Clinton has no competition.

She’s up against three ciphers and one endearing, gesticulating, slightly unmoored old man. If Biden was ever thinking of getting into the race, he’d be crazy to do so now. It’s over

Clinton won the debate because it didn’t change the dynamic. It froze the race, and she’s far in the lead. It doesn’t matter that her lead has shrunk from 50 points to 20. Twenty points is a landslide.

She remains a lousy candidate but she is an excellent debater — smart, quick, strategic and extremely practiced. Eight years ago she debated Barack Obama 25 times. Tuesday night she successfully bobbed and weaved and pivoted. She was at her most impressive, however, when she whacked Sanders upside the head — twice — right out of the box. He didn’t know what hit him.

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Too bad! Mr. Biden would have added a layer of affection to a so-far cold enterprise. He would have added an element of old-time normality to the field. He would have been as entertaining in his way as Donald Trump, and it would have been instructive to see how Democrats respond to the entrance of President Obama’s two-term vice president. Who has the party’s heart?

It would have been great. But if he jumped in now he’d look like a spoiler, doing it not to save the party but fulfill his sense of destiny. He won’t want to look that way. If he were willing to look that way he would have announced six months ago.

Luck matters in politics as in life and Mrs. Clinton has now been lucky twice in a short time. Kevin McCarthy blunted Republican arrows on Benghazi, then Bernie Sanders blunted arrows by saying the email scandal doesn’t matter. To many of his supporters, presumably, it did. Now all Democrats have permission not to care. It’s nice to get a pass like that!

And now the one candidate who could have derailed her will likely not get in.

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Joe Biden is sending out an unmistakable “forget-me-not” plea for 2016, brushing past signs of a Hillary Rodham Clinton resurgence with fresh and direct suggestions he could be on the verge of entering the presidential race.

The vice president’s political team broke its months-long silence on the subject with a letter circulated by one of Biden’s closest friends and top advisers. In the letter, though Biden is still officially undecided, former Sen. Ted Kaufman describes a “campaign from the heart” that Biden would wage and says a decision isn’t far off…

To its recipients — Biden’s former Senate, White House and campaign staffers — Thursday’s letter smacked of an unambiguous indication Biden was all but green-lighting a presidential campaign. Several individuals familiar with the letter say it was circulated with Biden’s blessing. The individuals weren’t authorized to comment publicly and requested anonymity…

In more than a dozen interviews over the past week, individuals close to the vice president described a man still wrestling with whether he and his family would be well served by campaign pressures while they continue grieving the death of Biden’s son in May. Yet more than two months after Biden began seriously weighing that question, those individuals said it was unclear what could change that would push him from undecided to yes or no.

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Vice President Joe Biden has personally made a series of calls this week to Democratic strategists from Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, asking a final round of detailed questions about how — not whether — to launch a 2016 presidential campaign.

People familiar with the conversations tell CNN that Biden has been making the calls throughout the week, including on Wednesday, just as many leading Democrats argued the window to a potential candidacy was closing in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s strong performance in the party’s first presidential debate. He is asking these people to work for him if he runs.

The vice president has been making clear that his family is fully supportive of him jumping into the 2016 race, according to people familiar with the calls. They are guided by the belief that he has the best chance of keeping the White House in Democratic hands and he could forever regret taking a pass at another shot at the presidency…

One potential point of entry into the race comes October 24 at Iowa’s Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner, when thousands of party activists will descend on Des Moines. If he decides to vigorously campaign for the Iowa caucuses in February, his supporters believe this is a moment that shouldn’t be missed, given the high-profile event is attracting the rest of the party’s top candidates.

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The vice-president has yet to miss any crucial deadlines, but within a few weeks, his path to the nomination will go from challenging to extremely implausible — and he knows it. His staff reportedly met with the Democratic National Committee last week to go over the complicated rules for entering each state’s primary, and last month Biden told the Catholic magazine America, “It’s just not there yet and it may not get there in time to make it feasible to be able to run and succeed, because there are certain windows that will close.” Here’s the time line Biden’s facing.

Missing the second Democratic debate on November 14 would send a bad message, but there are also several important filing deadlines next month. For those not up on the intricacies of the nominating process, basically the primaries determine how many delegates are allotted to each candidate. They’re awarded proportionally based on total votes by district, so a candidate can pick up delegates even if they don’t win the primary. About 4,800 delegates will vote at the Democratic convention in July, so a candidate will need around 2,400 delegates to secure the nomination.

In order to get on the ballot in Alabama, Biden must sign a statement of candidacy with the state party, gather 500 signatures, and pay a $2,500 fee by November 6, according to ABC News. Alabama only has about 60 delegates, so missing that primary wouldn’t be a huge blow. But several states have filing deadlines later that month, each with their own requirements: Arkansas (November 9), New Hampshire (November 20), and Florida (November 30). If Biden still hasn’t entered by the end of the month, he’ll have given up on nearly 400 delegates.

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[A]fter her strong debate performance, a host of prominent pundits are suddenly saying there’s no need for a centrist challenge to Clinton. That may not matter to Biden. What might ultimately drive Biden into the race, ironically, is the same issue that’s tripped up Hillary: After nearly half a century in national politics, becoming president is the only shot Biden’s got at securing a real legacy…

In 36 years in the Senate, Biden drafted and passed one piece of legislation, the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. One part of this sweeping legislation, the Violence Against Women Act, provided new federal resources for women who had been victimized and is potentially a credit to Biden politically. Even this, however, has a mixed legacy. A significant part of the act was gutted by the Supreme Court for violating the Fourteenth Amendment. The law would have allowed women to sue men in federal court for civil damages even after they had been cleared of criminal charges…

Biden’s legislation also contained a new “three strikes, you’re out” provision that is now regularly blamed for prison overcrowding and has subsequently caused Bill Clinton and California governor Jerry Brown to renounce their previous support of the law. If the Black Lives Matter movement demands more restraint from law enforcement, well, Biden has to explain he put 100,000 more cops on the streets. Don’t like the death penalty? The law created 60 new capital offenses…

It would be a mistake, however, to survey the wreckage and conclude it will have much effect on Biden’s chances of being president. His checkered legacy may not matter much in contrast to his formidable political skill. He has few peers in American history, having been elected to the Senate and White House nine times in a row after controversies that would have destroyed less skillful politicians. But vying to be the first female president, Hillary Clinton at least has some idea of what her legacy could be. Biden’s just another old white man with a knack for failing up, at the end of his political career. If he wants to be remembered for anything positive besides being an affable guy from Delaware, he’s got no choice but to run for president. Only then will he have one last shot at accomplishing something—anything—grand.

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Setting aside whether Biden could win the nomination—I do not now, nor have I ever owned a crystal ball—Clinton’s performance all but invites the vice president to take one more shot at the White House…

[I]f Biden enters the show ready to make an issue of the email and Clinton’s flip-floppery, his brand of centrism could quicken the political broth. Although the nation has been reluctant to elect standing vice presidents to the White House, voters overlooked this rule in 1988 to make George H.W. Bush president. Bush ran as the Reagan legacy candidate and won. Had Al Gore run as the Bill Clinton legacy candidate in 2000 instead of distancing himself, he might gave converted his vice presidency into a presidency (heck, he won the popular vote even by distancing himself). As the Obama legacy candidate, Biden could reap plenty of voter goodwill. No less an authority on Barack Obama than Barack Obama has repeatedly boasted that if the Constitution allowed it, he could win a third term on his record. Biden would give voters the choice to reelect Obama by explicitly telling them he would extend the White House policy’s from last four years into the next four. According to a CNN report in late August, Obama gave Biden his “blessing” should he decide to enter the race…

Nobody debating Clinton possesses Biden’s political stature. Nobody else has the political will to kick Clinton in the shins—to squeeze a little blood in the broth, if you allow.

Shin-kicking makes a candidate look stronger and brings out the passion in supporters. Looking on that stage Tuesday night, Joe might have viewed the Clinton romp as a bit of a charade—similar to a contest between the New York Mets and the winner of the Little League Baseball World Series. Nobody really knows how a Biden candidacy will change campaign 2016 until he enters. The very worst that Biden can do is lose. As a three-time loser, he has plenty of experience with that role.

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In effect, Biden has been running since Maureen Dowd published a Times column reporting how Biden’s 46-year-old son Beau implored his father to challenge Clinton for the nomination shortly before Beau died of brain cancer. The campaign picked up steam the following day when Alcorn, who had been a top strategist for Beau’s gubernatorial run in Delaware, joined the super-PAC. His arrival transformed what had been the fledgling brainchild of a 27-year-old former Obama volunteer into a serious campaign-in-waiting…

In reality, Biden is choosing what kind of campaign to run: an active one, in which he positions himself as a Clinton alternative, or a passive one that presents him as an alternative to Bernie Sanders or any of the other three non-­candidates who were onstage in Las Vegas.

Yes, the debate was comfortable to Democrats concerned about their front-runner, but it should also have been worrisome to Democrats concerned about their bench. “The fact she did well should surprise no one,” a Biden activist told me. “If she didn’t do well against those guys, then God help our party.” If something serious were to happen to Clinton — self-inflicted or not — the party would be entering a presidential race on favorable terrain but with a substantial talent problem. Martin O’Malley presented no rationale for a campaign; Jim Webb sounded bitter and bizarre; Lincoln Chafee at times appeared confused why he was even onstage. Sanders electrified his core supporters but didn’t suggest any newfound ability to sell his far-left platform to the general public. In a scenario where a Clinton campaign implodes, Democrats will again be desperate for a new candidate and will again review the options. Al Gore’s name will be floated. “Al Gore is doing nothing,” said a Democrat who sits on a board with him. Same with John Kerry. “John has not given the slightest indication he would do this,” Bob Shrum, who ran Kerry’s 2004 campaign, told me. What will be real is Biden…

What’s clear is that he’s in the race: When a sitting vice-president works the phones after his party’s debate stressing that he is not ruling out running for president, that is the activity of a man running for president. Biden is the party’s Plan B, either its alt-Clinton or alt-Sanders, and he’s had loyalists like Alcorn to keep the campaign’s pilot light on while he decides which candidate to be.

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