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Biden Focuses on Iraq, Hoping For
an Iowa Surprise

Joe Biden listens to a rival's speech at Tom Harkin's steak fry in Iowa yesterday. (Dan Balz).

DES MOINES -- Joe Biden gets the same question over and over as he campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination: Aren't you really just running to be the next secretary of state? Biden has a new answer for that question: Are you prepared to vote for someone for president who's not capable of being secretary of state?

Biden was the last of six Democratic candidates to speak at Sen. Tom Harkin's annual steak fry in Iowa on Sunday. By the time he got to the microphone, the huge crowd--more than 10,000 strong -- had begun to thin out and the noise level at the top of the hill was so loud that his words could barely be heard.

What he said was worth listening to, however. He argued that last week's testimony by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus and the prime-time address by President Bush brought a paradigm shift in the debate over Iraq. As he put it during an interview a few hours before the steak fry. "The earth moved."

By that he meant the events of last week drilled into public consciousness the reality that ending the war in Iraq will become the responsibility of the next president, not this president. "One of us on this stage, based on what we heard from the president, is going to have to end this war and secure that future," he told the steak fry audience. "And what we say and do--the remainder of this campaign--will affect our ability to do just that."

His words were meant to have a sobering effect on an audience of people likely to be among those who turn out for the Iowa caucuses in January. Getting that policy right will be "more important than the presidential aspirations of any of us on this stage," he said. Until the war is ended, and ended wisely, there will be no way to build a consensus for the other goals all the Democratic candidates share, from universal health care to economic security.

Biden believes that the more Democratic voters focus on this reality, the more they will weigh their presidential choices differently. He hopes that will be good for his long-shot campaign but recognizes that it could be as good or better for the front-runner, Hillary Clinton. Caucus-goers in Iowa, he believes, will put an even higher premium than before on the national security credentials of the candidates.

"Arguably the only two people it plays to are me and Clinton," he said.

Biden's campaign team believes neither Barack Obama nor John Edwards will measure up to this kind of scrutiny by Democratic voters in Iowa. "They don't have any experience and the way they talk about it [Iraq] is in sound bites," one member of the Biden team explained.

Biden has called out some of the other candidates over Iraq policies that he believes are impractical. At times he shows visible impatience with what they have to say on Iraq. He has been particularly critical of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson for saying he would take all U.S. forces out of Iraq. Who would protect the embassy in Baghdad, Biden wonders?

At last week's Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings, he was caught reading a newspaper while Obama was questioning Petraeus. An aide told him to put down the paper. Biden insisted in our interview that the incident was not an intentional snub of Biden, just a thoughtless act and nothing more. On Sunday, as some of his rivals were speaking at the Harkin steak fry, Biden could be seen at one side of the stage, head down in reflection--or disinterest.

Perhaps he's earned the right to be impatient with some of his rivals. Biden also has seen growing, if grudging, acknowledgement that his plan for a soft partition of Iraq into three regions--Shia, Sunni and Kurdish--may be the right way to think about the future of that country. He has argued for more than a year that there is no real hope for creating a strong, functioning central government in Iraq. The government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki has lived up to Biden's prediction.

Alone among the Democratic senators running for president, Biden voted for the Iraq supplemental funding bill that did not include a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. forces. His rationale was that the bill included money vital to the safety of the troops and as long as they are on the ground, he will not vote to cut off their funds. His rivals -- Clinton, Obama and Chris Dodd -- all voted against the measure. He wonders what they would have done if theirs had been the deciding vote on that bill.

Biden still believes there is an opportunity to spring a surprise in Iowa and his hope is that the nomination battle is turning from a focus on celebrity and money to an examination of credentials and experience. Voters, he said, want to be confident that whoever takes hold of the steering wheel in January 2009 knows how to drive.

Like Dodd and Richardson, Biden has ambitions that may exceed his and his campaign's capacity to deliver. But on the central issue of the campaign, he has carved out a unique role as one of the president's most vociferous critics who has also sought to hold the other candidates to account as they compete to satisfy the antiwar activists in the party.

He may not achieve his goal of winning the nomination, but it is likely that if one of the other Democrats ends up in the White House in January 2009, he or she will look to Biden to help make good on the pledge to end the war and end it in a way that does no additional damage.

--Dan Balz

By Washington Post editors  |  September 17, 2007; 1:15 PM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Dan Balz's Take  
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