Can Biden Defy the Iowa Odds?

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Brian Ray / The Gazette / AP

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Joe Biden speaks during a house party in Marion, Iowa.

Facing celebrity candidates endowed with hundreds of millions of dollars, the one thing Joe Biden may have going for him with only days to go before the Iowa caucuses are low expectations. For most of the campaign, few pundits or members of the media have given the Delaware Senator much of a chance of having a respectable showing in Iowa. "The people that come out of here are going to be the ones that beat the expectations that [the media sets], it could be four people, it could be three people," Biden told TIME on Monday. "The plain old politician in my fingertips tells me that we're going to do well."

"Well," in his case, would be for Biden to come in fourth behind the front-running pack of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards, and lately it seems that he may have a real shot. For Iowans looking for an experienced candidate, Biden arguably has the longest and most distinguished resume in the field. And it is on that strength that he is drawing surprising support in pockets across Iowa, particularly in the eastern cities like Dubuque and Cedar Rapids, as well as in rural areas, where he's giving Edwards a run for his money.

One hears caucus-goers mention Biden's name wistfully at events for Clinton, Obama or Edwards. Biden's a politician with a lot of experience that many voters wish had more money and little bit of that youthful energy that symbolizes change. Still, caucus-goers flock to hear him, eager to ask the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman about Iraq and Pakistan, Iran and North Korea.

"People have been kind to say, including even the national press, that I am qualified to be President of the United States, that I could win a general election, but how can he win the caucuses?" Biden told a crowd of several hundred people crammed into an Ames library Monday. "The only thing that I ask you, and the only responsibility to the Democrats in the rest of the country I think you have, is not to be pundits but to pick for them who you believe that the most qualified persons are to be in the finals."

Biden has seen standing room-only crowds, like the one in Ames, across the state in recent weeks. And the Ames audience was twice moved to its feet in ovations for Biden's stump speech — a surprisingly brisk 18 minutes compared to Obama's nearly hour-long closing argument, Hillary's 45-minute speeches and Edwards' typical 35-minute spiel. Biden by comparison spends more than an hour answering questions, a strategy, his communications director Larry Rusky says, that is starting to pay off.

In addition to the large crowds, Biden yesterday signed up more than 100 precinct captains — people who will stand up and argue for him in the individual caucuses — in a single day and has raised $750,000 online in the last month. And while he hasn't budged much in recent Iowa polls, Biden has gained most in the category of experience. Of the 33% of likely Iowa caucus-goers polled by ABC News/The Washington Post who said experience was the most important quality in a candidate, nearly half said they favored Clinton, 15% said Edwards, 10% chose Biden and 9% picked Obama.

Biden is betting that caucus-goers, whose average age is 61, will ultimately value experience over other qualities. And he claims that despite what Obama, Edwards or Clinton claim, he is also the real change candidate. "Each of the major things that I've done, I've done alone," Biden said, citing his list of achievements from authoring the Violence Against Women Act to convincing former President Bill Clinton to intervene in Bosnia. "No one supported my plan for exiting Iraq [a federalist plan which has become the model endorsed by congressional Democrats] and yet in all those instances, people came around. That's change."

By comparison, during his six years in the Senate, Biden continued, Edwards "only passed four bills and they've all been about post offices, I mean literally, because most freshman Senators don't get things passed. Barack Obama hasn't passed anything. And there's not a major bill that I know of with Hillary's name on it. I mean, where have they generated this change and leadership?"

Biden's campaign has been an old-fashioned retail operation, with him and his family blanketing the state. The strategy worked well for Jimmy Carter, who won his term after investing a lot of time shaking hands and answering every question in Iowa. Biden's large extended family, including his mother, siblings, kids and grandkids, have held more than 2,000 events across the state for him. That's compared to the nearly 140 events Obama's wife and sisters have hosted, 40 events held by Clinton family members including husband former President Bill Clinton, and the few dozen campaign events held by Elizabeth and Cate Edwards.

"We’ve particularly seen people coming from the Edwards camp and the Clinton camp," said Rusky. "The Clinton people are starting to realize that Joe Biden is really the most electable candidate, the one guy who can take on the Republicans on national security. And I think with Edwards, you know we compete with John Edwards for the Iowans, you know the traditional Iowa caucus-goers and I think at this stage we've really opened up the field. They find Joe Biden is more authentic, and closer to them in terms of their philosophy."

Still, there is no doubt that Biden faces a serious uphill battle. Overall, he has 5.2% support in the polls, according an average of Iowa polls by Real Clear Politics, much less than the 15% he needs to gain viability in all of the 1,781 caucuses. If he fails to get that 15%, his supporters are redistributed to other candidates. But Biden is betting that he will reach that magic 15% number in his eastern strongholds and in enough rural caucuses — he has personally visited 94 or Iowa's 99 counties — to place fourth even though New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson is currently polling ahead of him.

Ultimately, Biden thinks enough Iowans will make a late decision to throw their support behind him that he'll be able to go to New Hampshire with a fighting chance. "People are coming up handing me their Hillary buttons, handing me their Edwards buttons. Last night two Obama precinct captains walked up to me and said 'You know, we're switching.'"