Biden returns to Iowa, stoking ‘16 speculation

Joe Biden picks up a steak off the grill during Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin's annual fundraising steak fry dinner in Indianola on Sunday. Charlie Neibergall / AP

INDIANOLA, Iowa -- A familiar face returned to the first-in-the-nation caucus state Sunday afternoon, flipping steaks and wooing Iowans nearly three years before the next presidential election: Vice President Joe Biden

“It’s good to be back in Iowa,” Biden said standing in front of a massive American flag at the 36th annual Harkin Steak Fry. 

He continued, “It’s amazing, when you come to speak at the steak fry, a whole lot of people seem to take notice. I don't know why the hell that is. You’ve attracted the entire national press corps. I’ve never quite understood it, but I am learning.” 

Speaking at the steak fry sponsored by retiring Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) has become an essential box to check for Democrats considering a presidential run. Barack Obama spoke at the event in 2006, and all the Democratic presidential candidates -- including Biden -- addressed the crowd in 2007 just before the 2008 Iowa caucuses.

“This is old home week for Biden,” Harkin said about his “good friend, Joe” near the massive grill at the county fairgrounds, lauding the vice president who first visited the state in 1974. “I’m pretty sure he is an Iowan at heart.” 

The vice president spent a portion of his lengthly speech -- which one attendee remarked “sounded like a campaign speech” -– talking about the administration’s commitment to foster a prosperous and growing middle class. Biden also made a point to mention his leadership on gay marriage, calling it the “civil rights of our day.”

And he briefly touched on the ongoing conflict in Syria, vowing President Barack Obama would not tolerate the use of chemical weapons. “As I told the president of China, who I know well, Mr. Jinping. As I told Mr. Putin when I last had a conversation with, it is never, never, never ever been a good bet to bet against the American people.” 

While Biden has not announced his intentions for 2016 -– he even brushed off a question about it Sunday -– he has definitely encouraged the speculation he might launch a third bid for the White House. “Oh, I’m ready for winning some House and Senate seats now,” Biden said when asked if he was ready for 2016. 

Obama was asked to weigh in on a potential Biden or Hillary Clinton run in a television interview that aired Sunday morning. “I suspect if you asked both of them, they'd say, "It's way too premature to start talking about 2016,” the president said on ABC’s This Week, “You know, Iowa's a big state, and he's [Biden] an old friend of Tom Harkin's.” 

Biden never mentioned Clinton during his nearly 35-minute speech, and one omission was particularly striking. “I think John Kerry has been one of the best secretaries of state so far in the history of the United States of America,” Biden said, never referring to the fact Clinton served in that position for the administration’s entire first term. 

Biden’s appearance in the Hawkeye State adds his name to a long list of potential presidential candidates to visit the state in recent months, but he is -- by far -- the highest profile Democrat to hold a campaign-style event as everyone waits to hear what Clinton will do.

On the Republican side, however, a slew of politicians have visited, including former presidential candidate Rick Santorum, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) will headline events in Iowa in November. 

Sen. Harkin took the opportunity to make a knock at the GOP contenders: “All I can say, folks, is the clown car is filling up pretty rapidly early in the season.”