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Quad-City Times - Biden has a Passion for MRAP Vehicles

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Quad-City Times - Biden has a Passion for MRAP Vehicles

By Ed Tibbetts

Somewhere underneath the roof of the gigantic Alcoa plant, U.S. Sen. Joe Biden tells of being in Iraq a couple months ago and seeing pictures of a military vehicle that had been blown up.

The explosion was so fierce, he says, chunks of the vehicle were scattered across 25 yards and overhead utility lines were toppled.

"There were five kids in that cab," he says. "Not one was killed."

The reason: They were riding in a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle.

Biden, D-Del., has been a prime advocate for the vehicles, and on a trip last week to the Quad-Cities to sell his presidential campaign, he took a tour of Alcoa's Davenport Works, where rolled aluminum for the armored vehicle is made.

Alcoa won a $31 million contract for the project last month.

"What you guys are doing is saving lives," Biden tells a small group of employees after his tour.

Biden says the stop isn't politicking. Only a couple of print reporters, and no cameras, are along for the visit.

Nonetheless, there is no escaping the linkage, both in what it says about a candidate who is bucking his party by supporting funding for the war and the limitations it puts on his campaign in a state famous for its anti-war base.

Biden, alone among Democratic presidential hopefuls, voted to approve funding for the Iraq war last May. And he has made boosting funding for the MRAP vehicle a particular mission of his.

Thus far, the MRAP has gotten $11 billion, and the Bush administration asked for an additional $11 billion last month.

Biden praised the program last Tuesday as a cart carried him and a half dozen others past 20,000-pound slabs of aluminum, past a 37-year-old aluminum rolling mill, the world's largest, and later, past stacks of armor plating.

Some of it is so hot heat waves can be seen 25 yards away.

Biden says that wherever he goes he visits plants with a hand in the MRAP program, from Alcoa to small assembly plants in South Carolina. He says he's intent that MRAP vehicles continue flowing to Iraq.

Currently, there are 600 to 800 there, Biden says. His goal is to replace Humvees with more than 20,000 MRAP vehicles.

"To me, this has been a passion," he says.

The MRAP isn't univerally praised, however.

The administration isn't as agressive as Biden. It has requested 15,000 vehicles, according to Congressional Quarterly. And the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments noted last month that MRAPs are three times more costly than new Humvees and require more fuel.

Relying on MRAPs "may have negative repercussions" on the military's ability to reach objectives in Afghanistan, Iraq and in future contingencies, the center said.

Biden's passion also has limitations for his political candidacy.

He's the only one of the Democratic candidates to vote for a war funding bill back in May.

At a gathering of more than 120 people at The Hat restaurant on West Locust Street after the Alcoa tour, a Democratic activist and retired government employee expresses doubts about the MRAP program and asks, "Shouldn't we stop funding this fiasco and bring our troops home?"

Biden responds that even cutting off funding wouldn't stop President Bush from finding money elsewhere in the budget to carry on.

He pledges to end the war but defends his vote. The room, while applauding his explanation, is less enthusiastic than on some of Biden's other remarks.

Dave Nagle, the former chair of the state Democratic Party, says he doesn't see the funding vote as much of a drag on Biden, who he believes is starting to gain in popularity.

A Des Moines Register poll last month had him in fifth place, with 5 percent.

"His explanation seems to satisfy people," Nagle says. But he adds, "he might face more scrutiny if he continues to move up."

Biden tells a reporter that "some things are worth losing elections over." It's the same thing he said in May while casting his vote.

He's not conceding, however. Not by any means.

In fact, he says it makes no sense for his rivals to vote against funding while acknowledging it will take a year, possibly four, to get U.S. troops out of Iraq.

"You're going to keep troops there in the first term, but you're not to vote to fund them?" he asked. "Come on, give me a break."

He said the others must have been told, "Boy, you better vote against the funding because everybody in Iowa is against the — you know — in the Democratic caucus."

"I don't believe they're all against that," Biden says.

Chuck Van Fossen, of Davenport, says he opposed the Iraq War but nonetheless backs Biden, even with his vote on funding.

"He just has the most reasonable, rational approach to a very difficult problem," he says.

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