Martha T. Moore
Before Sen. Joseph Biden takes the mike at the Nashua Rotary Club luncheon, the audience plays a round of "Dead or Alive?" where celebrity names are tossed out and members answer with their status: Ginger Rogers (dead), Larry Hagman (alive), Elvis Presley (in dispute).
When Biden gets up to speak, he points out that he is, in fact, alive. Twenty years ago, as he was running for president and speaking to the same group in the same ballroom, Biden had to leave the podium, stricken by a monster headache that presaged a life-threatening brain aneurysm.
PROFILE: Sen. Joseph Biden
Biden, a six-term Democrat from Delaware, is giving the White House and the Rotary lunch a second shot. His campaign is focused on his foreign policy experience and his plan for restructuring Iraq. Still, he continues to face the issue that forced him out of the 1988 race: talking himself into trouble.
Sunday, he'll participate in a Democratic debate in Iowa, the state where almost 20 years ago to the day, his debate performance cost him his candidacy.
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Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, bills himself as the only candidate who has a strategy to end the Iraq war. He wants to divide the country into autonomous regions for the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, held together by a limited federal government.
Biden says it's hopeless to push for a strong central government to end sectarian violence, as Bush and Republican candidates do.
The rest of the Democratic field is in "a race to see who could get (U.S. troops) out the quickest," Biden says, which he calls unrealistic. "The facts are the facts. You can't get them out in less than a year."
"You are basically being given two false choices 'Do more of the same and leave it for the next guy,' or 'Get out and hope for the best,' " he says. "I'm the only one in either political party who has offered a plan so we won't have to go back."
On the stump, Biden emphasizes his success in getting funding for new armored vehicles known as MRAPs (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) that better deflect roadside bomb blasts. He warns of the growing cost of care for injured veterans, "our most sacred obligation," and swears he would spend "nine out of 10" dollars of the federal budget to fulfill that promise.
Biden's son, Beau, serves in the National Guard. The senator says his son has been told his unit will be deployed to Iraq next year.
Biden still has to answer to voters such as Ernie Jette, 62, a Nashua lawyer who asked why Biden voted in 2002 to authorize the war.
He says the resolution giving President Bush authority to go to war was intended as a tool to get the United Nations to pressure Iraq. Giving Bush that much leeway was "a giant mistake," he says.
At 64, Biden has been in the Senate for 35 years, longer than all but four others, he points out. (He quickly adds he is not as old as that implies: 41 senators are older.) "Experience that's good experience is a big deal," he says.
National and state polls show 2%-3% of Democratic voters favor Biden, putting him far behind Senate colleagues Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama for their party's nomination.
Biden's propensity for getting into verbal trouble, which ended his first run, hasn't gone away.
Then: He borrowed a long speech from British politician Neil Kinnock but failed to attribute it in the Iowa debate in 1987. Biden withdrew during the resulting controversy. Now: He called Obama, who is black, "clean" and "articulate" in a clumsy compliment.
Can he avoid cringe-inducing mistakes on the world stage if elected president? "Yes," was his one-word response in an MSNBC debate in April.
This week, Biden's smoothly delivered talk went over well with the Rotarians, by their own description a heavily Republican club.
"Very down to earth, right to the point, and I'm a Republican," says Linda Grugnale, 51, an unemployed sales rep. "He was different, and I like that. He has a plan. If someone else had a plan, maybe everybody would listen to their plan, too, but there is no plan."
Biden "combines the depth of experience with refreshing candor, and what could be better than that?" says Tina Andrade, 60, a hospice development director. "It's one thing to be candid, but to be candid when you know what you're talking about, that's great."
But she's planning to vote for Clinton. "The country is in the worst position it's ever been in and needs someone brilliant, and I believe that's her," Andrade says. "If there's an answer, she's a very strategic thinker."
Norm Laplante was listening to Biden for the second time. In 1987, he stepped to the podium and amused Rotarians with tales of his vacation until Biden returned.
He is skeptical about Biden's three-state Iraq plan. "I don't think there's any solution," says Laplante, 70, a real estate broker and Republican. "I think the man is trying, but I don't think he has any more idea than anybody else."