Behind in Polls, Biden Hopes for Iowa Surprise

While Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware has been mired in the second tier of Democratic candidates and lags far behind in the money race, he says he has a plan to win Iowa, and the experience to hit the ground running if he's elected president. Biden is in his sixth term in the Senate.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

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And I'm John Ydstie.

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama got the lion's share of attention among the many Democratic presidential candidates crisscrossing Iowa this week. But Joe Biden was there, too. The senator from Delaware has been mired in the second tier of Democratic candidates and lags far behind in the money race. But he says he has a plan to win Iowa and the experience to hit the ground running if he is elected president.

NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR: In the tidy backyard of their Iowa city home on a perfect summer evening, Bob and Maggie Elliott(ph) are refilling the lemonade cooler.

(Soundbite of lemonade being poured)

Ms. MAGGIE ELLIOTT (Resident, Iowa): Just swirl the bottom around.

NAYLOR: The Elliotts are hosting a few dozen of their neighbors who have come to watch and listen as Joe Biden practices the retail politics of Iowa. Bob Elliott, though he is wearing a Biden button, says he is not on board yet.

Mr. BOB ELLIOTT: I'm rather undecided at this point. I think we need someone, either Joe Biden or someone very much like Joe Biden, to dig us out of this hole.

NAYLOR: Biden is in his sixth term in the Senate, and now that Democrats are in the majority, he is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a position that should allow him to stand out in the crowded Democratic field as the foreign policy expert. On this summer evening he speaks with authority about Bosnia and Darfur and Iraq. He says the next president will have to hit the ground running.

Senator JOE BIDEN (Democrat, Delaware): He or she better be able to, from the moment they stand behind that desk, know which direction they want to take the country.

NAYLOR: Biden is the only candidate among the four Democratic senators running for president who voted for the last bill funding the war in Iraq. He says it was to ensure the troops there now are supported while they remain and to get funding for armored personnel carriers.

The next morning, Biden is in front of another rapt audience at a Cedar Rapids coffee shop. He's asked about Republican comments that the Democratic presidential field is weak on terrorism. It gets a rise out of Biden.

Sen. BIDEN: I will not take a lecture from any Republican about who they have been criminally - let me say it - criminally irresponsible in their failure to protect the homeland, criminally irresponsible. And all this rhetoric, this ridiculous rhetoric about if we don't fight it in Baghdad we're going to fight it in Boston. Give me a break.

NAYLOR: Afterward, Robin Cash(ph), a retired Presbyterian minister, says while he was impressed by Biden, he doesn't stand a ghost of a chance of winning the Democratic nomination.

Mr. ROBIN CASH: It's good enough for Biden maybe to get a cabinet post or something, if he wants it.

NAYLOR: But Biden insists he is not interested in being someone's secretary of state or running mate, and that despite showing up at around two percent in the polls and having raised maybe a tenth of what frontrunners Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have, it's very early and he can still win.

In an interview in his van between stops, Biden says he has a two-pronged strategy.

Sen. BIDEN: Lay down first-rate organizations in the early states, particularly Iowa and New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, number one. And number two, build grassroots organization.

NAYLOR: This is Biden's second campaign for president. He first ran 20 years ago, dropping out after it was discovered he borrowed parts of speeches from a British politician. This time around, Biden believes his experience puts him in a position to win.

Sen. BIDEN: In my view, when it's all over, the American public has twin concerns - end this stupid war, keep us safe. And, you know, they are like the matched forces. They are like the diplomacy and power.

NAYLOR: Whether that's the message Democratic voters want to hear this year, in Iowa or anywhere else, may determine whether Biden joins the frontrunners or remains back in the pack.

Brian Naylor, NPR News.

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