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Underdog Biden banks on Iraq plan

There's an adage in politics: Only underdogs acknowledge their opponents. Joe Biden not only mentions all his rivals, he lists their Internet sites on his own campaign Web page.
/ Source: The Associated Press

There's an adage in politics: Only underdogs acknowledge their opponents. Joe Biden not only mentions all his rivals, he lists their Internet sites on his own campaign Web page.

Want to hear what Democratic presidential candidates have to say about Iraq? Click

Chalk it up to classic Biden self-assurance.

"I am confident that given an equal look in terms of my record, my leadership ability, my personal life story and my ideas that I have the best chance of anybody of winning," he said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Low in the polls and way behind in fundraising, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. is banking on his plan for Iraq partition, a rural campaign strategy in early presidential contests and a last-man-standing style of politicking to push himself out of the back of the Democratic presidential pack.

He doesn't seem afraid to stand alone.

Separating for the crowd
On Thursday he was the only Democratic candidate to vote for the war funding bill. Earlier in the week, he voiced support for inserting U.S. troops in Sudan to help stem the violence in Darfur.

But it's a challenging climb for the voluble Delaware senator accustomed to being a marquee player in the U.S. Capitol.

Biden is a 34-year veteran of the Senate, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and an influential Washington insider. But on the presidential stage, top billing has gone to such Democrats as Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards - all current or former Senate colleagues who together have less governing experience than Biden does.

What they do have more of is exposure and cash. During the first three months of the year Biden raised $2 million in contributions and transferred nearly $2 million from his Senate campaign account. Clinton and Obama each amassed about $26 million.

"For Biden to be a serious contender, he's going to have to raise the money," said Dick Harpootlian, a former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party.

Countered Biden: "The only thing I'm hearing in the early states about money is how obscene it is."

The Iraq factor
So far, nothing has defined Biden's campaign more than his views on Iraq. For more than a year, he has been pushing to decentralize the country and divide it into three semi-autonomous regions of Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis.

"There is no possibility in your lifetime or mine of having a strong central government in Iraq that is democratic and is viewed as being able to meet the needs of the Iraqi people," he said.

He anticipates a continued military role in Iraq, much like the current troop presence in Bosnia, because "no one is going to be in a position, no one in those three regions, to take on al-Qaida."

His plan has been both praised and panned in foreign policy circles. Advocates believe it is the only way to save Iraq from a sectarian, and possibly regional conflagration once combat troops leave. Critics argue that it would require massive relocations of people, give some regions disproportional control of oil resources, and create tensions with Turkey and other Iraq neighbors.

His forward-looking stance on Iraq, however, has been overshadowed by the jostling among Clinton, Edwards and Obama over who is most ardently against the war.

"He may be the best candidate on that issue at the worst time," said Phil Roeder, an Iowa Democratic consultant who worked for the state party when Biden first ran for the presidency in 1988.

War funding, anger and plans
Still, even Biden has struggled with the current war debate. Last month, he said he wouldn't support a proposal backed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada to cut off money for U.S. troops in Iraq beginning March 31, 2008.

Two weeks later, Biden sided with 28 other Senate Democrats and voted to end debate and bring the measure to a vote.

To sell his partitioning plan - and his candidacy - he has been holding town hall meetings devoted to Iraq in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Beginning this weekend, he plans to spend six days in Iowa, his third trip to the state this month. He also has called for at least one Democratic presidential debate devoted exclusively to the war.

In the process, he has won an array of endorsements from local and state elected officials in Iowa and South Carolina.

"Senator Biden is doing a very good job playing off of that (anger over the war) and talking about how he has a ton of experience," said Gordon Fischer, a former Iowa Democratic Party chairman who is not aligned with any presidential candidate. "He's the one who's been most specific about getting out of Iraq and what's going to happen post withdrawal."

Grassroots effort
In South Carolina, he has taken his campaign deep into the state's rural Democratic heartland and campaigned hard in towns and hamlets larger campaigns might avoid.

When Democrats had their first debate in Orangeburg, S.C., in April, Biden was the only candidate to show up ahead of a county Democratic Party event. Two nights later, Biden and five other presidential candidates attended U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn's Fish Fry, a free event for those who can't afford the party's big-dollar gala. Biden lingered the longest.

"What he's doing as a grass-roots campaign operation is working," said Bernard Prezzy, who represents Orangeburg County on the state's Democratic Party executive committee and isn't backing any candidate. "He's out there himself; he's in these communities. He has no fear of getting out there with these people."

Still, the challenges are enormous. Edwards, who was the senator from neighboring North Carolina, won the state in the 2004 presidential primaries. Obama and Clinton could prove popular in the state, particularly among blacks and women. And other candidates hoping to break out of the pack, such as Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, are also meeting with small groups and developing rural strategies.

Biden can also create his own problems. He is still dogged by his decision to drop out of the 1988 presidential campaign after he was caught lifting lines from a speech by British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock. Earlier this year, he apologized for describing Obama as "articulate" and "clean." In an era of soundbites, he is a champion of verbosity.

But he disarmed last month's debate audience when NBC anchor Brian Williams, noting his loose-tongued history, asked him whether he could reassure voters "that you would have the discipline you would need on the world stage."

Biden replied simply: "Yes."

He has surrounded himself with influential Democratic advisers from the Clinton-Gore era, including former Democratic National Committee Chairman David Wilhelm and former Gore chief of staff Ron Klain - proof, aides say, that his is no Quixotic quest nor a campaign for lesser office.

Last month, in an interview on Meet the Press, he flatly rejected a vice presidential slot.

"How about secretary of state?" host Tim Russert asked.

"Secretary of state's a different thing," Biden replied, before promptly adding: "but I won't do that either."