Posted: July 29, 2004


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Joseph R. Biden Jr. knows this time counts. The question is, what does it count for?

It counts for John F. Kerry, sure, but it also may be counting more for Biden than he is willing to let on.

As Delaware’s senior senator moves around the venues of the Democratic nominating convention in Boston, he is a magnet, not strong enough to draw a mob like the Clintons or Ted Kennedy, but enough to attract a flock, and a quality one at that.

Network stars like Andrea Mitchell and Tavis Smiley wanted him for interviews, Dan Rather wanted a word with him, and Larry King put him on a show broadcast live Wednesday night from the FleetCenter convention floor.

The Kerry-Edwards campaign wanted Biden. It has him scheduled on the stage Thursday evening as part of a lineup with former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and former General Wesley K. Clark to highlight the party’s stand on “security,” which is the new way politicians refer to “foreign relations” in a world made nervous by terrorism.

The convention operation also wanted Biden. Although it has cut back from past years on the number of speakers being sent from delegation to delegation, from hotel to hotel, to fire up the faithful, Biden is on the circuit.

He is wanted there, too. His staff’s toughest assignment seems to be to extract him from the knots of delegates that tie him up, wanting to be photographed with him or to get his signature. He always obliges, drafting his staff to help take the pictures and lingering in hotel corridors past the time he should be leaving for his next stop.

As Biden circulates, he carries the message that this presidential election counts for the country’s security – there is that word again – and he works at that message earnestly and persuasively. Yet there seems to be a subtext.

When Biden talks up Kerry, he says without saying it that a Kerry administration would need a masterful secretary of state, and it is no stretch at all to think that Biden, the leading Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, would not mind if his listeners concluded that he would be up to doing it.

“I’m the spokes-guy now for the party on foreign policy,” he says in a standard line.

Whatever Joe Biden is, he is not done yet. His actions this week smack of an audition, and although he may not know himself what it is for, he knows it counts, and he is hedging his bets.

He sounds like a secretary of state, but his travels are presidential. The delegations he visited included Iowa and New Hampshire, the early-bird states for the nomination, as well as South Carolina and Florida, both key presidential states, and California, the mother lode of Democratic money.

They are all places he would need if he were to bump up against Hillary Rodham Clinton or John R. Edwards in 2008 or 2012.

Ask Biden’s staff why he went to those states, and the answer comes back, because they invited him. Ask Biden what his ambition is, and the answer comes back, to be the Foreign Relations chairman in a Democratic-controlled Senate. Of course, he does add rapidly, “I will do whatever John [Kerry] asks me to do.”

It is the forelock-tugging posture of a Kerry-Edwards loyalist. It would be more believable if he was not also handing out to the delegations stacks and stacks of 16-page press packets designed to showcase Biden’s depth on international affairs.

The press packets also hint of Biden’s yearning to be one of the country’s leaders with the stature to get away with saying a certain four-letter word, the one Kerry used in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine and Vice President Richard B. Cheney “probably” used on the Senate floor.

The packet includes a New Yorker magazine piece from February largely focused on Biden. It quotes him as interpreting what a young Afghan girl, whom he met in Kabul, meant when she told him the United States must not pull out, because she could not study to be a doctor if the Taliban returned. He said she was saying, “Don’t f--- with me, Jack. You got me here. You said you were going to help me. You better not leave me now.”

Kerry and Cheney drew serious notice when they said what they said. Alas, not Biden.

His Boston rounds, however, have been attracting notice, and it is the kind reserved for people who could do great things.

Mary Maloney, the Polk County treasurer in Iowa, has known Biden since he tried for the 1988 nomination, and she remains rhapsodic about him. She wanted him to run for president this year but thinks the top Cabinet post would do, too.

“I was one of his good supporters in 1988. We were hoping he’d do it this year,” Maloney said. “He has great expertise in foreign policy, and our foreign policy is broken right now. I think he’d make an excellent secretary of state. Foreign policy has never been one of my big things, but it is this time.”

Lucy Garner, a Florida delegate, said, “I’ve always admired him and keep up with him. I was thinking he was going to be our vice president.”

Biden has been fiddling around with presidential politics so long that people in Iowa and New Hampshire treat him like a third senator, and he recognizes any number of them, hugging away the way he does at home. He is a mix of policymaker and personality, connecting with them as though he was appearing at the Sussex County spring dinner in Georgetown.

Iowa got more of the policy with a deft turn on President Clinton’s observation that strength and wisdom are not opposing values. “Wisdom matched to power is what great nations are about,” Biden said. “Power unfettered is what empires are about, and empires fall.”

New Hampshire got more of the personality. Biden arrived as Rosa L. DeLauro, a Connecticut congresswoman also on the speaking circuit, was coming out. He stopped in the middle of the room and launched into a madcap story of what happened when he dropped off his son Hunter, now a Washington lawyer who was accompanying him, in New Haven to start Yale Law School.

DeLauro’s mother, a city councilwoman, arrived out of nowhere, the police chief in tow in case Biden needed him. Not long after that, the owner of a famous pizza parlor came by personally at the mother’s request to drop off four pies.

It was all classic Biden. These days he likes to quote Seamus Heany, an Irish poet, who wrote of a rare and remarkable confluence when “hope and history rhyme.”

Whatever Biden is about, he acts as though he very much wants to count when those verses are written.