Image: Biden
Doug Mills  /  The New York Times via Redux
Presidential candidate Joseph Biden Jr., right, speaks to John Wright, a member of the Keokuk County Democrats after a campaign event in Sigourney, Iowa, Oct. 4.
updated 10/8/2007 11:13:27 PM ET 2007-10-09T03:13:27

As he strode into a coffee-and-scones meeting with the Jasper County Democrats the other night in Newton, Iowa, Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. slipped off his suit jacket and unknotted his tie.

“Folks, I apologize if I’m a little overdressed,” Mr. Biden told the small group.

The senator explained that he had just barely caught the direct flight from Washington to Des Moines that evening, “since neither Hillary nor Barack will lend me their G5 jets,” and that there had been no time to change. “I got in the plane — I was meeting with President Talabani, you know, he’s the Kurdish leader in Iraq, and I literally ran from that meeting in the Capitol.”

It pretty much summed up the two worlds that Mr. Biden inhabits these days.

In Washington Mr. Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, helps set the terms of the debate on Iraq, pushing for a looser federalist system there that has won the support of the Senate, and the ire of the Bush administration.

But on the campaign trail he is struggling to draw crowds and coverage to help him get heard above rivals who are so well known that their first names — Hillary and Barack — suffice.

It is a plight familiar to quite a few candidates who find themselves at the back of the Democratic pack this year — candidates who barely register in news accounts of the campaign despite impressive résumés that distinguish them from many of the more unorthodox also-rans of campaigns past.

Even with their considerable credentials, Democrats like Mr. Biden; Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, a former ambassador to the United Nations; and Senator Christopher J. Dodd, the chairman of the banking committee, find themselves lumped in with the kind of candidates who are usually unable to break into public consciousness unless they fall off a stage at a pancake breakfast or suffer some other mishap. For them it is a vicious circle: low poll numbers discourage news coverage, and a lack of coverage makes raising poll numbers difficult.

“I didn’t think, to use a trite expression, that all the oxygen would be sucked out of the air for so long,” Mr. Biden said in an interview. And breaking through, he said, is difficult because his campaign has received such little attention from national reporters, especially compared with the wall-to-wall coverage his race for president drew two decades ago. “I thought you guys would be out here a lot sooner,” he said.

Of course it did not help that Mr. Biden’s campaign got off to a wince-worthy start when, the day of his announcement, a furor broke out over his remark that Senator Barack Obama of Illinois was “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” which offended many.

Foreign policy credentials
Since then, for all his ubiquity on the Sunday political shows and his well-received debate performances, he has trailed three formidable opponents in both fund-raising and attention: Mr. Obama, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina.

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So now Mr. Biden, 64, is courting Iowa voters in breakfasts and lunches of a dozen here, a few dozen there. At each stop he makes the case that in a time of war, Democrats need a nominee with unimpeachable foreign policy credentials who also can do well in Republican states. And he warns Democrats not to be lulled by President Bush’s unpopularity and the perceived weakness of the Republican field of candidates.

“This idea that we’re just going to nominate anyone and they’re automatically going to win is, I think, a little naïve,” he told a small group at breakfast in Fort Madison on Friday.

So Mr. Biden has begun engaging Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama, asking at nearly every stop how they can square their recent votes to stop financing the war in Iraq — Mr. Biden voted to continue the financing — with their recent concessions that they cannot guarantee all the troops will be home by 2013.

Over the summer, when Mr. Obama called for striking at terrorist camps in Pakistan if the Pakistanis fail to do so, Mr. Biden questioned his foreign policy acumen by saying that he was describing existing policy. And Mr. Biden, who calls Mrs. Clinton a friend, said in the interview that even though he did not blame her for being a polarizing figure, it should concern voters who want to see a Democrat elected president.

“It’s really not her fault,” he said of the strong reaction toward Mrs. Clinton over the years. “But you know, and people know, there is going to be that great ‘vast right wing conspiracy’ — it’s going to mobilize. And I think people are going to start sitting there thinking, whoa, wait a minute. Do we want to go there again?”

At several stops he sharply criticized Mrs. Clinton’s recent vote to name the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a sponsor of terrorism. “The idea of giving the president an excuse to be able to go to war with Iran I found absolutely mindless,” he said. “I was dumbfounded when Hillary voted for it.”

Before Mr. Biden can be seen as an alternative, though, he has other hurdles to jump. Mr. Edwards is making similar electability arguments against Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama, and has more money and higher poll ratings. Mr. Richardson, who has also out-raised Mr. Biden, is also running on foreign policy expertise.

Mr. Biden’s bid to run as the steady, experienced foreign policy hand was not strengthened last winter when he was forced to explain his remarks about Mr. Obama.

It was a reminder that Mr. Biden’s strength as a speaker — which was hard won after he overcame a childhood stutter — has been a double-edged sword. In fact, it was the very thing that doomed his 1988 campaign. That year, after a promising start, he dropped out of the race after he was caught exaggerating his academic record at a town hall meeting and, in a major debate, using lines from a British politician without attribution.

Focused on Iowa
Now he is focusing most of his resources in Iowa, where he has moved many of his top aides, quietly built an organization and won endorsements from 10 state lawmakers. He is doing the same kind of retail campaigning that helped him get elected to the Senate in 1972 at the age of 29 — he did not turn 30, the minimum age for a senator, until shortly after Election Day.

Mr. Biden may sometimes seem a caricature for long-windedness in Washington, but he goes over well with Iowans, who sit nodding through his stories-within-stories about the Senate and his meetings with presidents and world leaders.

He also has a compelling personal story, bits of which he sometimes shares with audiences.

In his recent memoir, “Promises to Keep,” which hit the bestseller list this summer, he writes about the death of his first wife and toddler daughter in a car accident just after he was first elected to the Senate, his decision to commute home to Delaware every night to be with his two sons, his disastrous presidential campaign in 1988, his role in helping block Judge Robert H. Bork’s nomination to the United States Supreme Court and how he rebuilt his career and his life with his wife, Jill, and his family.

At each stop, people come away talking about supporting him or at least giving him a second look, and they muse about why he is so far behind in the polls and out of the news.

“He’s not even mentioned, is he?” asked Betty Foody, 85, who said she supported Mr. Biden and who joined about a dozen people to hear him speak at a pizzeria in Sigourney.

After Mr. Biden addressed the small breakfast in Fort Madison at the Ivy Bake Shoppe and Cafe, George Wright, a 73-year-old lawyer who said he supported Mr. Edwards, pronounced him “impressive” and went on to make an observation that the Biden campaign could probably live without.

“This is what’s nice about Iowa being the first-in-the-nation caucus: you can sit in a room this size with, what, 14 people, and hear him,” Mr. Wright said. “The problem, with Obama and Hillary and even Edwards now, is that the crowds are getting too big. You can’t do this anymore.”

But Mr. Biden continues, undeterred, to ask people for their support, or at least a look.

“I think I have the ingredients,” Mr. Biden told a crowd of around 50 people who gathered to hear him speak in Burlington. “I could be wrong, to state the obvious, and if I’m wrong, then you’ll have to watch me on the Sunday shows and in the Senate. But if I’m right, then you may have the chance to really, really change the world.”

Copyright © 2013 The New York Times


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