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Biden gets do-over 20 years later

After dropping a bid for the White House in '87, the senator says he's learned his lessons.

June 18, 2007|Robin Abcarian | Times Staff Writer

EMMETSBURG, IOWA — Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., in a dark suit whose jacket he will soon shed, steps out of a dark SUV about an hour and a half late for a house party at Jack and Kay Kibbie's place. Jack Kibbie is a corn and soybean farmer, but more to the point, president of the Iowa state Senate -- and for any Democrat aspiring to the White House, a valuable endorsement.

He would have been here sooner, Biden explains to Kibbie, but there was a little, ah, problem as his plane came in from Des Moines. "You're not gonna believe this," Biden says, plainly enjoying the moment. "We got about to the treetops, and the pilot says, 'Oops. Can't land here. Too windy.' "

So Biden's plane made a detour, and he arrived to make his pitch for the Democratic presidential nomination a bit later than he'd planned.

About 20 years later than he'd planned, if you want to get metaphorical about it.

Biden's first presidential campaign ended disastrously in 1987, crumbling amid reports that he lifted some of his best lines from other politicians, plagiarized a paper in law school, picked a fight with a voter in New Hampshire.

Then 44, he'd already been a U.S. senator for 14 years and, as chairman of the judiciary committee, was leading what would be a historically important fight against President Reagan's Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork. In the crucible that is a presidential run, Biden melted down.

"I didn't deserve to be president," he says while flying between Des Moines and Dubuque on a six-day swing through Iowa over the Memorial Day holiday. "I wasn't mature enough."

Depth of experience

At each stop, he reminds Iowans that he's been around long enough to have served with seven presidents through three wars.

As a 30-year member, and now chairman, of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden is campaigning as a statesman, and thinks he is the only candidate who has offered a viable solution to the nation's most pressing problem: Iraq.

"Right now I am absolutely convinced that the American public and Democratic Party are looking for someone with the breadth and depth of knowledge in foreign affairs and national security policy, as well as the ability to empathize with the circumstances of average, middle-class people," he tells an approving crowd in the Kibbies' backyard. "If I am wrong about that, then I am not your candidate. And I will die happy without 'Hail to the Chief' ever having been played for me."

He hopes voters see that what he lacks in money and pizazz -- he is vying, after all, in a field that could produce, in New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the first woman; in Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, the first African American; or in New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, the first Latino Democratic presidential nominee -- he more than makes up for in experience.

And, Biden says, "I am fully prepared to match my character against anyone running." He rues the tepid way he believes the party's 2004 nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, responded to Republican attacks.

"They go after me, they got a fight," Biden says.

This time around, he believes he is scandal-proof.

"To the best of my knowledge, anything that is embarrassing about my past is pretty well public record," he said. "Any of you who take a look at my life will not be able to conclude that I am not an honorable man.... And that's why I wasn't afraid to get back into this thing."

But Biden's reputation as someone in love with the sound of his own voice, who muffles his message by sticking his foot in his mouth, has dogged him.

In January, a clumsy compliment paid to Obama backfired, overshadowing his first week as a presidential candidate. In an interview, he said Obama was appealing as a candidate as "the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy."

Biden says he's unfazed by poor press. "There isn't anybody out there who is a major political figure who hasn't had somewhere between 20% and 40% of the people out there thinking he's a jerk."

Still, he does speak like a man who has been singed, if not burned at the stake, by bad press. He checks himself regularly, with phrases such as "I don't know for a fact" and "correct me if I misstate this."

'Ideas trump money'

Biden is at home in a crowd, appearing at ease, squeezing people's shoulders as he talks and kissing women's hands. He sometimes gets tangled up in a story or interrupts a compelling point with a distracting aphorism ("As my mom used to say ... "), but he connects.

"He's bright, warm and experienced," said Ann Heinz, 54, a sales rep for a textbook company who hosted Biden in her bunting-draped Dubuque backyard.

"He was very impressive," said Cathy Hladky, at a house party in Indianola. "We've got to finish the war."

"He has got the highest conversion rate of any candidate I have ever seen," said Bill Romjue, Biden's Iowa campaign director, referring to the number of neutral or undecided voters who sign up as supporters after seeing the candidate in person.

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