- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 18, 2014

Joseph R. Biden’s 2016 presidential ambitions already look like they have been swallowed whole by the Hillary Rodham Clinton juggernaut, but political analysts say the vice president still has a narrow path to victory — one that depends on either out-politicking the former first lady in crucial states such as Iowa or praying she makes a grave mistake.

Mr. Biden and Mrs. Clinton both visited Iowa, home of the first caucuses in the presidential primary cycle, over the past week. Neither has declared a White House run in two years, but each seemed to be courting the Democratic foot soldiers necessary to a caucus victory in the state.

Although Mr. Biden remains popular and well-connected among influential Democrats in Iowa, he trails far behind Mrs. Clinton. A CNN/ORC International poll last week, for example, found that 53 percent of Iowa Democrats support Mrs. Clinton and just 15 percent back the vice president. Another 7 percent chose Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who has delivered Shermanesque declarations that she will not run.

National polls also have shown Mr. Biden in a massive hole as the Democratic Party, 16 months before the Iowa caucuses, is coalescing around Mrs. Clinton.

But Mrs. Clinton’s aura of inevitability may shatter, just as it did in 2007 and 2008 when she was eclipsed by little-known Sen. Barack Obama. Or, the former secretary of state may commit a serious misstep.

If Mrs. Clinton hits any significant bump in the road, analysts say, Mr. Biden is well-positioned to assume the mantle of Democratic front-runner.

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“Hillary has a lot of momentum. In her party, she is considered competent and experienced. Although he apparently lags in the polls, Joe Biden is genuinely well-liked. I doubt if he registers any negatives in the Democratic Party, and [he] could pick up steam if Hillary falters,” said former Rep. James Leach of Iowa, a Republican who spent 30 years in Congress and now serves as a visiting political science professor at the University of Iowa.

To mount a comeback, analysts say, Mr. Biden will need to pounce on any Clinton gaffes or mistakes and must stick to what he does best: on-the-ground retail politics in states such as Iowa and New Hampshire, where his blunt, blue-collar approach still appeals to many Democrats.

The vice president already has begun that effort. On Wednesday, he spoke at a rally in front of the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines organized by the Catholic advocacy group Nuns on the Bus.

His remarks offered hints that the vice president understands which way the political winds are blowing in the Democratic Party as he offered a fiercely populist address and indicated he has not finished fighting on behalf of the middle class.

“We’re asking, ‘Are corporations overtaxed?’ Are you kidding me?” he said. “The second question, ‘Is Wall Street overregulated?’ That’s what we’re debating. Is it overregulated? Are unions too powerful? I’m serious. Think of the debates we’re engaged in. We’re asking all the wrong questions. It’s time to stand up and ask the right questions. We should be asking the question why CEOs make 333 times more than their average employee.”

Mrs. Clinton has delivered a similar message while attempting to position herself as a champion of the middle class, but campaign analysts say Mr. Biden may possess a natural advantage in that arena.

“I think Biden certainly is” seen as an effective messenger for a populist agenda, said Joe Shannahan, a partner at the Des Moines-based public affairs firm LS2group who served as communications director for Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack and filled the same role for the Iowa Democratic Party.

“Most people look at Hillary Clinton and look at her foreign policy experience,” Mr. Shannahan said. Mrs. Clinton’s hawkish foreign policy positions, he said, seem “kind of conservative to most Iowa Democrats.”

Although she is and perhaps always will be best known for her work in the international realm, Mrs. Clinton continues to woo the kinds of blue-collar voters who will put her in competition with Mr. Biden in Iowa, in New Hampshire and across the nation.

She also is tailoring her message to women by addressing pay gaps, universal pre-K and paid family leave. Mr. Biden also has focused on these issues in recent months.

“Because we do not have full participation by women in our labor force in the U.S., we don’t have as strong an economy as we would if we did,” Mrs. Clinton said Thursday at a women’s economic forum hosted by the left-leaning Center for American Progress. “The floor is collapsing. We talk about a glass ceiling. These women don’t even have a secure floor under them.”

At Thursday’s event and at last weekend’s steak fry hosted by retiring Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, Mrs. Clinton has carefully avoided discussing any presidential plans.

At the steak fry, she declared to Iowans, “I’m back.” Beyond the reference to her failed 2008 bid, she said little about her political future and joked that she was at Mr. Harkin’s event just to enjoy some steak.

The former secretary of state surely will make many more trips to the Hawkeye State over the next 16 months, but some analysts say that, too, could expose an advantage for Mr. Biden. The vice president is equally good, if not better, than Mrs. Clinton in a state that values retail politics perhaps more than any other.

“It’s cliche, but he’s got to get on the ground there and meet with activists and start building out an organization. I believe someone other than [Mrs. Clinton] is going to emerge. There’s room on her left,” said Jon Seaton, managing partner of the political consulting firm East Meridian Strategies who worked as Iowa caucus director for Republican John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign.

“Retail politics, [Mrs. Clinton] is a far cry from her husband,” Mr. Seaton said. “I don’t know how well she’s going to wear with Iowa voters. Obviously, she didn’t wear well in 2007 and 2008. Other Democrats who could get on the ground early and organize” have a chance of defeating Mrs. Clinton.

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