The News Journal - Biden Pushing Hard to Wow Iowans
Senator works thinning crowd at ballgame, intent on making headway
By NICOLE GAUDIANO, News Journal Washington Bureau
The crowd at the LumberKings minor league baseball field began to thin as Sen. Joe Biden made his pitch to be the next president.
These potential voters in the first state to choose a Democratic nominee started leaving after Biden's rival -- Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York -- finished her speech, but Biden's political director, Danny O'Brien, said that was fine.
"He'll give it his heart, whether there's 10 people or 100 people," he said, watching Biden from the sideline at state Rep. Polly Butka's Old Fashioned Corn Boil. "If these people are in here, they're into it, they're serious and we want them. If we lost a third of the crowd, we're happy to have the two-thirds here."
Biden may not be drawing the biggest crowds in this rural state, but he's working for every vote he can get in Iowa, the state where he hopes a surprise showing in the January caucuses will deliver the momentum he needs to secure the nomination.
His Iowa strategy is based on the theory that, despite his single-digit poll numbers and rock star candidates dominating the limelight, the people of Iowa aren't yet spoken for. And there are four months left to woo them before they must stand up at 1,784 precincts in 99 counties to declare their presidential candidate allegiance.
The trick, the Biden people say, is catching the attention of voters like Bev Hermann of Clinton, one among 50 or more who lingered on the bleachers near Biden after his speech here.
"I'm still keeping an open mind, but I really, really like him," said Hermann, who wore a shirt displaying stickers for front-runners Clinton, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.
Biden has been traveling to Iowa since last August, meeting voters and building relationships with state lawmakers by speaking at their fundraisers. Between now and the caucuses set for early January, Biden estimated he would spend 60 days in the state.
He hopes to win over activists and state lawmakers who will reel in their friends on his behalf, an extension of the "personal retail" campaigning he practices in Delaware.
"If I can be here enough, have competent staff on the ground here, I can finish in the top three, maybe even win this state," said Biden, who also briefly ran in the 1988 presidential primaries. "It's basic, basic politics. Touching them, getting to see them, and they go to their next best friend."
Though he now sits at the low end of what pundits term the "second tier" of hopefuls below the start tier of Clinton, Obama and Edwards, Biden's strategy counts on a show of Iowa strength that upsets predictions and vaults his candidacy into the front-running ranks.
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts gathered steam in his 2004 presidential bid after his surprise Iowa caucus victory over Edwards and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. The last Democratic nominee not to have started with an Iowa caucus win was Bill Clinton in 1992.
But that strategy has its detractors and is one that may be overtaken by events -- particularly the mad scramble of states to crowd their primaries and caucuses into January and February of 2008. That could lessen Iowa's impact and make it much more important to have a lot of money, organization and visibility -- now.
Iowa's former governor, Tom Vilsack, read the political landscape exactly that way earlier this year when he dropped out of the presidential race.
Vilsack said he could not count on an Iowa win lifting him from the second tier of contenders during 2008's accelerated election cycle. He had accumulated debt, and when more states began moving up their primaries to Feb. 5, he realized he couldn't simultaneously set up operations and message delivery in the expensive larger states.
"There's no question if you win Iowa and New Hampshire, you're going to have momentum," said Vilsack, now a Clinton supporter. "The problem is that you will not have had the resources in September, November, December of '07 to lay the foundation for a successful, high-stakes set of primaries on or before February 5."
Biden's campaign rejects that notion, believing instead that an Iowa surprise would bring enough media attention to drum up financial support to sustain him.
Banking on experience
On the stump, Biden seems to relish the role of retail politician, often picking out someone from the audience by name and speaking directly to them.
He stresses his experience as Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, hoping to position himself as the best candidate on national security who can also win in red states normally carried by Republicans.
He pushes his political solution for Iraq that would separate the warring factions, giving them control over their daily lives in their own regions with a weak central government responsible for common interests. The credentials and pitch can impress.
"He can cite countries, leadership, connections and causes and consequences I haven't seen in the other candidates, and he can do it on his feet," said state Sen. Brian Schoenjahn, who hasn't endorsed a candidate, after a Buchanan County Democrats' event at an Independence, Iowa, restaurant.
But Biden's resume also leads some to think of him as a candidate for secretary of state, a job he says he "absolutely, positively, unequivocally, Shermanesquely" doesn't want.
His efforts so far have not lifted him much above 3 percent in the polls, with Clinton and Edwards registering at about 25 percent in Iowa, Obama at 20 percent and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson at about 12 percent.
A June Mason-Dixon poll of likely Democratic caucus-goers showed 27 percent were undecided. Biden's pollster, Celinda Lake, notes that half or more of those who say they have chosen a candidate in public and internal polls also say they aren't firmly committed or that they would consider someone else.
Reaching those undecided voters may require better name recognition for Biden. Despite his ubiquitous presence on Sunday talk shows, he took notice recently when a veteran in New Hampshire told him, "You know, you should really run for president."
"We look at the national polls, only 20 percent of the people really know I'm running out there," he said.
Raising the profile
Richardson's poll numbers hit double-digits after he ran "job interview" commercials in Iowa, allowing him to tout his resume. "Watching told me so much about him," said Connie Dunkin, a part-time marketing consultant who attended a Richardson event in Cedar Rapids.
Biden hopes to win the same recognition with two commercials dealing with Iraq scheduled to run in the state through Labor Day. Biden's book, "Promises to Keep," having made it to The New York Times best-seller list also could help.
Biden's signs are visible at campaign events, but the support for the top-tier candidates is easier to see -- and hear.
At the Hawkeye Labor Council Forum in Cedar Rapids, visitors were greeted by chanting Obama and Edwards supporters. Inside the Hawkeye Downs Expo Hall, top-tier supporters hit the highest decibel levels as their candidates approached the stage.
O'Brien said Biden's campaign is working toward building a volunteer and activist base, but he acknowledges they haven't invested in as much "flashy visibility" or mobilized as many as the others at big events. Compared with Obama's 29 field offices in Iowa, Biden has six.
But that's not to say Biden's volunteers aren't working hard -- and that's what he's counting on.
He drew a crowd of more than 100 at Iowa City's Hamburg Inn No. 2, partly because of the determination of people like Mae Schatteman, 86, who likes how Biden "calls it like it is."
"I had a list of 100 to call," she said. "I sat there and just called and called."
Bremer County Democratic Party Chairman Rodney Drenkow said Biden's campaign staffers contact him almost weekly, seeking information or names of county activists.
Biden may have helped himself in Bremer County, delivering a 40-minute speech at the Democrats' summer fundraiser in Waverly. Edwards spoke as well, but those who met with Drenkow later said they were favorably surprised by Biden.
"When they heard him before, it's been from a more analytical standpoint, like on the Sunday morning news shows," he said after the event. "If he keeps having speeches at meetings like this, people are going to pay attention."
Contact Nicole Gaudiano at email@example.com.