Iowa offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs made his mark on Mount Vernon. Many in town made their mark on him, too. Wirfs and his mother, Sarah, took The Gazette on a tour of his hometown, revisiting scenes around what essentially is the one square mile where he grew up. This story is a little about what can hold you back. This is mostly about what moves you forward.

News

Joe Biden looks to Iowa to solidify his lead in Democratic primary

Former VP's last presidential run ended after fifth-place finish in caucuses

Former Vice President Joe Biden interacts with people Thursday at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. The 2020 Democratic presidential front-runner is seeking to redeem himself among Iowa caucusgoers, after a fifth-place finish in the 2008 caucuses ended his campaign. (Eric Thayer/Reuters)
Former Vice President Joe Biden interacts with people Thursday at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. The 2020 Democratic presidential front-runner is seeking to redeem himself among Iowa caucusgoers, after a fifth-place finish in the 2008 caucuses ended his campaign. (Eric Thayer/Reuters)
/

DES MOINES — Iowa, a decade ago, humbled Joe Biden. Now it has a chance to redeem him.

His last presidential race ended abruptly in 2008 after he placed fifth in the state’s crucial Democratic caucuses, garnering less than 1 percent of the vote in the first contest of the primary season.

This past week, the former vice president returned to Iowa for a four-day campaign swing, hoping to solidify his lead and recover from inconsistent performances in this summer’s presidential debates.

In a tribute to the state’s political importance, nearly all the major Democratic candidates were crisscrossing Iowa this weekend to attend events including the Iowa State Fair, a party fundraiser called the Iowa Democratic Wing Ding, and a timely forum on gun control Saturday in Des Moines.

For Biden, Iowa presents a unique mix of risks and opportunities — and he faces more pressure than any candidate to come out on top.

A poll of Iowa Democrats released Thursday by Monmouth University — its first since the last round of debates — shows support for Biden holding steady at 28 percent, about the same as when Monmouth last polled Iowa in April.

But Biden’s margin over his rivals narrowed because of a big gain by Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, whose support jumped from 7 percent in April to 19 percent, allowing her to surpass Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont for second place.

“Biden’s support is durable,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, but he said Biden’s rivals may have more room to grow. “It doesn’t look like Biden has the potential to surge in Iowa like someone like Elizabeth Warren.”

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

Biden, with his centrist political brand, faces a special challenge here: Iowa’s caucusgoers tend to be very liberal. They nearly delivered victory to Sanders in 2016.

What’s more, the state is overwhelmingly white, so it does not play to Biden’s strength among African American voters, who are a big part of his polling lead in national and other state polls.

Asked why he is doing better in Iowa this time than his failed effort in 2008, Biden points to his improved fundraising and a more robust campaign organization in the state.

“I can afford to do it now, “ he said Thursday at the Iowa State Fair, surrounded by a scrum of reporters and cameramen who followed him around the annual festival of farm products, carnival rides and foods-on-a-stick.

“I’ve been able to raise almost 300,000 contributors, who have allowed me to be able to compete ... . You’re going to see me put together a full-blown organization.”

Connection to Obama an asset in Iowa

Biden also holds a political asset that he didn’t have before — his eight years as vice president to Barack Obama. There probably are few places where Obama is personally more popular than in Iowa, where many Democrats still are proud that their caucuses delivered the surprise victory that began Obama’s successful White House run in 2008.

“It helps Biden,” said Judy Hawk, 73, a retired librarian from Burlington. “Obama was great. A class act. An impossible act to follow. But those two men had a great deal of respect for each other. They worked well as a team.”

After some 2020 rivals in the second round of debates last month challenged Biden over certain Obama-era policies — on immigration, health care and trade policies that drew fire from progressives even during Obama’s presidency — Biden treated it as an attack on Obama himself. He warned of a political backlash for going after one of the Democrats’ most popular leaders.

A recent Biden fundraising email asked supporters to participate in a survey on the question: “What did you think of President Obama’s historic presidency?”

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

Thank you for signing up for our e-newsletter!

You should start receiving the e-newsletters within a couple days.

The Obama tie-in “is more helpful in Iowa than any other state,” said a senior Biden campaign official. “Iowans are very protective of the Obama legacy. They take credit for the Obama presidency. There is a special feeling here that plays to our advantage.”

1987 fair speech was disastrous for Biden

Still, Biden is hardly monopolizing support among Iowa Democrats who were key to Obama’s breakout victory. Some are looking, as they did in backing Obama, for a fresh face to lead the party into battle with Trump.

“We are all so eager to move forward, but I’m afraid the vice president doesn’t represent that,” said Jan Bauer, an influential former Iowa Democratic Party county chairwoman and one of Obama’s earliest backers, who is supporting Montana Gov. Steve Bullock in the 2020 race.

Iowa made another unfortunate appearance in Biden’s political history, during his first run for president in the 1988 campaign.

It was at the Iowa State Fair in August 1987 that Biden gave an infamous speech that included uncredited language from British politician Neil Kinnock. After other allegations of plagiarism emerged, Biden dropped out of the race the following month.

Applying lessons learned from 2008 campaign

When he ran again in 2008, Biden struggled in Iowa against a big field of better-organized rivals including Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Obama. Like the rest of the field, he was eclipsed by Obama’s charisma.

“He was a 60-watt bulb in a field with a 200-watt bulb,” said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines and co-author of a book about the Iowa caucuses.

Biden ran then on many of the same themes he is voicing today, including the virtues of his experience, but Obama’s message of hope and change better fit the time.

“I’ve got more experience than all of them,” Biden said at one point during the campaign. “I’ve changed more things than the guy who is talking about change.”

Biden and his aides now say they have learned a lesson from 2008 about the importance of organization in Iowa. After a late start, they now claim to have the largest Iowa campaign staff — 75 full-time people.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

That’s more than Warren, who has about 65 in what has been widely seen — even among her rivals — as the best organization in the state.

The Biden campaign has 12 offices, including one that Biden visited in Iowa City on Wednesday for its opening. Among the crowd that packed into the strip mall on a sweltering evening to catch a glimpse of Biden were several veterans of his past campaigns, a sign of how he inspires enduring loyalty and affection.

“Joe represents solid foreign policy, good experience, health care reform and bringing this country back together,” said Laura Lacombe of North Liberty, who supported Biden in 2008.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.