Joe Biden tries to raise star wattage

Veteran senator plays catchup in presidential race

Several weeks ago, Joe Biden sat in the lobby lounge of the Beverly Hilton Hotel, huddled on the edge of his chair in conversation, explaining just where he’s been.

People in Hollywood know who he is of course. He’s been in the Senate longer than any other candidate in the field — since 1973 — and has one of the few concrete plans for post-surge Iraq, a proposal to break the country into three parts in a decentralized federation.

But when it comes to the opening shot of the presidential race, that of raising money, he’s been conspicuously out of the picture in the industry.

The question is, is it too late? Major donors already seemed consumed by the race’s superstars.

“The problem is, for me right now, I haven’t been around for 20 years,” he says. “I haven’t asked for anything in 20 years, and I am coming into this at a moment when the klieg lights are on, and instead of seeing Batman and Superman up there, it is Hillary and Barack. So it is going to take a little time.”

In a race where superstar contenders are sucking up much of the oxygen, Biden struggles, in Hollywood terms, to see and be seen. He raised $2.1 million in contributions in the first quarter, behind Bill Richardson and Chris Dodd, and just $36,000 from entertainment sources, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

He himself says that he’s heard from major donors who tell him, “You could win the general election, but God, how do you win the nomination?”

“The first primary that everyone has written about is money, and that is a real, real thing,” he says. “That is legitimate. And in that primary, I didn’t do well. But on the other sort of primary, who has the best organization in the states, what kind of people do you have around you, we are doing quite well.”

He plans to boost those numbers with additional visits to Los Angeles by the end of the second quarter. But he also insists that, in contrast to other contenders, he won’t need as much money to stay in the race, as he is concentrating on making better-than-expected showings in Iowa, New Hampshire and other early states.

“I need a lot less money to win the nomination,” he says. “Whoever exceeds expectations in Nevada, Iowa, Hew Hampshire and South Carolina is going to be the nominee. Imagine if one of the front runners ends up third in Iowa. Imagine if they end up third in New Hampshire. School’s out, man. It’s done. Conversely for me, imagine if I end up coming in second or a very close third. I am still in the deal.”

Lara Bergthold, political and development consultant to Norman Lear, says that he suffers from the same problems as Bill Richardson and Chris Dodd: A crowded field.

“He’s not the most liberal in the race,” she said. “He’s got a lot of experience and a lot of history. That can be for good and for bad. But I think people are respectful of him.”

His hair turning from gray to white, and wearing American flag cufflinks, Biden’s reputation for rumination and verbosity is not unfounded. He loves to converse — to the point where, at the first debate in April, NBC’s Brian Williams asked him whether he’d be able to contain his verbosity on the world stage. Biden simply answered “yes,” drew sustained laughter and one of the most memorable moments of the event.

“It was almost embarrassing that that was the best line of the debate,” he says.

As much as that talk can be a journalist’s delight, and has gotten him in trouble, he’s also managed to carve out an image as that of elder statesman. At 64, he admits that he’s in a much different game than he was in 1987, when he last ran for president. Back then, he notes, he was the youthful upstart, the front-runner to beat, at least until he dropped out of the race over allegations that he plagarized a speech.

Biden says that after that ill-fated bid, he made a decision to avoid what could be called the “political scene,” the various dinners, conventions and fund-raisers meant to keep a politician’s name front and center, and instead concentrate on policy. His visits to Los Angeles have tended toward speeches before foreign policy groups, not campaign appearances. He admits to bypassing what he calls the “shout” shows in favor of “Meet the Press,” where he’s been a frequent guest as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“We kind of have a short hand in the campaign now,” Biden says. “They see me as secretary of state, not as president. They don’t care if the secretary of state has any charisma. They want to know if the secretary of state knows what the hell he or she is doing.” (To be sure, he recently told Tim Russert that he is not running for vice president or secretary of state).

Last week, he said he would send troops to called for troops to Darfur to aid the humanitarian crisis in the region. In at least one regard, Biden has separated himself from the pack on Iraq. Alone among the contenders, he voted in favor of the supplemental appropriations bill last week that gave President Bush more time to wage his troop surge in the region. Biden did so reluctantly, saying that the “practical reality” was they didn’t have the votes to override a presidential veto yet the Senate still had to support the troops with the “equipment and protection they need.” He told CNN, “The Democrats are a lot smarter than everybody thinks they are. They’re not — everybody is not,”

That may not win him any converts from those calling for an immediate pullout, but Biden believes that sophisticated donors will see the coherence of his positions.

“Hollywood cares very much about this war,” Biden says. “This is a town, in my experience, that doesn’t reward caution. It rewards boldness. It rewards authenticity. I don’t mean that this will flip tomorrow, but I think this is a matter of time for me.”

Biden has staked much of his candidacy on Iraq. He’s calling for at least one debate to be entirely focused on the war. And on the trail, his call is for a long-term focus that he sums up with the question, “After the surge, then what?”

His plan is for splitting the country into three regions for Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis, overseen by a loose federation. The U.S. would have a diminished presence there to fight Al Qaeda, but not intervene in a civil war.

“As long as the war in Iraq is the single highest priority for over 70% of the Democrats in the country, as long as the public is as focused as it is about how serious this election is, what is at stake, I am in this race.”

What he needs, he says, is patience.

“It is kind of like the pre-season is over, the gun just went off, and it is like the first time people are starting to go, ‘Hmmm. The games have begun. The marathon has started.'”

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