Biden eyed in Iowa’s role as kingmaker

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Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. tells Iowans to cast aside doubts about whether he can win the presidency, saying that if they look beyond celebrity, they will see he is the most electable, experienced politician in the bunch.

“I can win if you say I can win,” the Delaware Democrat says, a nod to Iowa’s important role in the nominating process.

“You have an obligation to show the rest of the nation who you think is the most qualified person to be president, and your recommendation is a big deal,” he told voters in Onawa recently. “If you don’t come out of Iowa one, two or three, you’re gone, this is over.”

An increasing number of Iowa Democrats are saying that Mr. Biden’s strategy — spending more time in the state than his competitors and securing 14 endorsements from state lawmakers who tout his decades of experience — might just yield him a third-place or better finish on Jan. 3.

Such a surprise showing would earn the senator invaluable free press coverage, a fundraising boost and the potential to translate an Iowa blessing into the presidential nomination.

But Mr. Biden has yet to yield major results on paper. His numbers are marginally increasing in the polls, although he ranks far behind Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois.

Still, voters in all parts of the state are increasingly dropping Mr. Biden’s name as their preferred candidate. Unprompted, most cite his foreign-policy credentials as superior to the senators leading the polls.

In northern Iowa at a Clinton event, it was Howard L. Larson: “I’m leaning towards Joe. He’s a good man with an awful lot of experience.”

After the candidates all spoke during the Jefferson Jackson Dinner, it was Molly Clause of Winterset: “Joe Biden stood out because my top issue is Iraq and I like his experience.”

Mr. Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has long been advocating for dividing Iraq into three regions loosely held together by a weak central government.

“I’m the only one that has a plan,” he says.

On the campaign trail, Mr. Biden is jovial as he ridicules Republicans. But his demeanor gets serious when he talks about the country’s international standing and the big problems facing the next president.

“Until we solve the problem in Iraq, we will not be able to regain our credibility to lead the world on any other subject,” he says, adding the next president will have “no margin for error.”

To that extent, Mr. Biden wears his gray hair like a badge of honor, reminding voters again and again that he has worked with seven presidents and was rubbing elbows with foreign leaders back when some of the candidates were years from taking public office.

“I know most [foreign leaders] by their first names, not because I’m important but because I’ve been going to these conferences since I was 29 years old, sitting next to them,” Mr. Biden says.

His aides know experience is his strength and note the change from his first presidential bid.

“Twenty years ago, we’d go months without a question on foreign affairs,” says Biden adviser David Wilhelm, who was on the senator’s Iowa team in 1987 and worked for candidate Bill Clinton in 1992. “Now, it’s not lost on voters that Joe Biden spoke to [Pakistan’s Pervez] Musharraf before President Bush” did.

Biden staffers - many of whom were on board 20 years ago - are fond of noting that he performed well in 1988 without spending any money on TV ads. He is the only major candidate not yet up on television, but that’s expected to change soon because he just qualified for public financing.

The campaign did produce a full-page “Joe Is Right” newspaper ad in Iowa pulling together all the times that his opponents have agreed with him.

There are also plenty of Biden holdovers who liked him 20 years ago — before he failed to cite a politician whose speech he was quoting and was forced to drop out of the race. He was tied for first place when he ended his run in September 1987.

Mr. Biden praises Iowa as “the only level playing field left in American politics” because you can campaign and be viable with less than $100 million. Being so far behind the front-runners this time around, Mr. Biden hasn’t had to throw any mud, and few attacks have come his way.

“Too many people are looking for an American Idol,” says Marge Himes of Sioux City. “I trust Joe Biden to get us out of this mess.”

Mr. Biden also is able to connect more directly with caucus goers in part because his events are intimate. In Iowa City this past summer, he gripped a woman’s hand and looked her in the eye while answering her question about regime change. He has a habit of touching foreheads with voters when he’s trying to make a point.

Voters also laud him as a straight shooter, something he trumpets before every audience. He told a group of Hispanic voters this fall that he would always speak his mind because “win or lose, I’m going to do this on my own terms.”

Mr. Wilhelm sums up the Biden Iowa strategy by looking at Mrs. Clinton’s declining poll numbers: “Expectations matter, and there are no expectations for him.”

About the Author

Christina Bellantoni

Christina Bellantoni is a White House correspondent for The Washington Times in Washington, D.C., a post she took after covering the 2008 Democratic presidential campaigns. She has been with The Times since 2003, covering state and Congressional politics before moving to national political beat for the 2008 campaign. Bellantoni, a San Jose native, graduated from UC Berkeley with ...

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