On The Trail With Joe Biden

(John P. Filo/CBS)
Jeff Greenfield is senior political correspondent for CBS News.
INDIANOLA, Iowa-- On a bright warm late September Sunday, more than 12,000 Democrats have gathered at the Memorial balloon field in Indianola, to hear six Democratic Presidential candidates--a gathering a cynic might say will produce enough hot air to launch an armada of balloons. They are here for Senator Tom Harkin's 30th annual "Steak Fry"--Iowa being well north of the Mason-Dixon line, they actually don't dry the steaks, they grill them--and to attend a presidential "Cattle call" where cattle is in fact on the menu. It is also a place to measure the obstacles--and possible opportunity--for one of the longer of the long shot candidates.

When Delaware's Joe Biden was elected to the Senate in 1972, Hillary Clinton was in law school; John Edwards as at North Carolina State; Barack Obama was 11-years-old.

But even though Biden has spent more than half his life in the Senate, and has chaired the prestigious Judiciary and now the Foreign Affair committees--such background holds little sway in American Presidential politics; just ask the 41 sitting US Senators who have tried and failed to reach the White House since JFK did it in 1960. Clinton and Obama travel with Secret Service protection, and each has raised ten times the money Biden has. John Edwards still has the recognition and much of the organization he had in 2004, when he nearly won the Iowa caucuses. Even New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson has spent nearly $2 million n Iowa media advertising; Biden has spent about $270,000.

So Biden travels "light"--in one and two car caravans. He speaks to dozens, not thousands.

So why is he here, 20 years after his first presidential run collapsed amid charges of plagiarism and exaggerated academic credentials?

For Biden, the answer comes down to one word: Iraq, and the fallout from that war.

"Were it not for September 11th, do you think you would have entered the race?" I asked him. " I probably world not have," he answered ,because we probably would not be in such dire shape. The President had an incredible opportunity to unite the world and unite the nation, and he did the exact opposite on both counts. We're more isolated than we've ever been...we're less safe than we've ever been."

And this stark, grim assessment is at the core of his campaign. He takes this message, unvarnished by salutes to ethanol or Iowa politicians, into a room at Cronk's Cafe in Denison; to the Clay County fair in Spencer; and to this steak fry. Again and again, he says that the next president "will have no margin for error"; that separating Iraq into three ethnically concentrated regions--for Shiite, Sunni, and Kurd--is the only way to stop the sectarian violence--a civil war, he calls it--that makes pace impossible.

He goes further, saying that nothing Democrats want to do--not health care, not protecting the environment, not better education--can happen unless a President can heal the political divide, and that cannot happen as log as Iraq is sapping American blood and treasure.

IS this any way to win an Iowa caucus--especially with Clinton, Obama, and Edwards so far ahead in money, manpower, and recognition?

Maybe not; but there is one bright political piece of news. Biden has won the backing of as many state legislators as any other candidate. One of them, House Majority leader Kevin McCarthy, says of f current polls putting Biden at 2%, "polls at this stage during a caucus contest mean virtually nothing...you've got the candidate most competent on Iraq [so] things are gonna move."

There is also the matter of Biden's eloquence. He has curbed his tendency toward long-windedness--when asked at a debate whether he could control his tongue, he said simply: "Yes." And at this steak fry--as the last to speak--he gave the shortest speech of any candidate, a carefully written "Serious as a heart attack" talk about Iraq. As he talked, his audience paid him the ultimate compliment--not cheers, but serious, attentive silence.

"You know what the military in Iraq refer to fallen Americans?" he asked. "'fallen angels.' How many more angels have to fall before this folly ends."

If the next President will in fact have no margin for error, neither does Biden. Without at least a 3rd place finish here, he says, his campaign ends. But at the least, Biden is attempting something very different in this campaign--betting his chances on the idea that voters are willing to hear hard news, and conclude that the candidate delivering it is the best choice to deal with it.