INDIANOLA, Iowa — If Joe Biden ultimately decides not to run for president in 2016, he at least, in the meantime, wants to be treated like he could.
It was by no accident, then, that the vice president traveled to Iowa on Sunday to speak at Sen. Tom Harkin’s annual steak fry.
“When you come to speak at a steak fry, a whole lot of people seem to take notice!” Biden said, feigning incredulity, to a supportive crowd of Democrats. “I’ve never quite understood it, but I’m learning.”
The steak fry, as Biden well knows, has historically served as a launch pad for Democratic presidential hopefuls. The turf is not unfamiliar to Biden, who himself spoke in 2007. President Barack Obama headlined the event in 2006.
It’s unclear yet if Biden, who spoke following San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, will run for president again — not for lack of ambition, many Democrats say, but because Hillary Clinton is also still weighing a bid.
With this high-profile visit to a high-stakes early-primary state, Biden isn’t holding back from acting like a potential candidate, for now.
Sharon Holle, who ran Biden’s Davenport, Iowa, office when he ran for president in 2007, said she’s heard credible buzz he might run in 2016 — enough, anyway, that she corralled a Biden staffer at the event to offer up her services again, just in case.
“He knows he has to run,” Holle said of Biden. “If Hillary doesn’t run — but even if she does run he still has a chance to get in the top three in the primary.”
If he ran, Biden would be able to tap into his vast, loyal network of volunteers and operatives in Iowa, a state which he has come to know well during two presidential campaigns and where he is well-liked among Democrats. He has been culling relationships there since 1974, when he stumped in Iowa for former Sen. John Culver during his first Senate campaign.
Biden's "God love you" brand of retail politician was on full display Sunday. In between posing for a staged photo with Castro and Harkin, steak and spatula in hand, Biden reunited with some of his Iowa-grown supporters in a flurry of how’ve-you-been-man’s and hey-there’s.
“You haven’t changed a bit,” he said to one woman. “Must be something in the water here.”
“Too bad we can’t go have a beer,” a man called over to Biden a few minutes later.
“Well, I don’t know why we can’t!” Biden, who does not drink, said.
Harkin, a longtime Biden ally, heaped praise on the vice president during a speech. Biden returned the favor, gushing about Harkin, who is retiring from the Senate after this term, as well as Obama.
And, as any potential presidential candidate would, Biden talked about himself.
He touted the role the president assigned him in helping to end the Iraq war, his diplomatic victories abroad and on the Hill, and his early (if accidental) support for gay marriage — something he and the White House had previously tried to downplay, but which Biden on Sunday trumpeted to a standing ovation.
Throughout, he unsubtly tied himself to the president as an equal player, all the way back to the Democratic primary debates preceding the 2008 election. “The only two people who never disagreed on a single solitary subject in those debates were Barack Obama and Joe Biden,” Biden said. Clinton also shared that debate stage.
And, although Biden is a friend of Clinton’s, he called John Kerry “one of the best Secretaries of State so far in the history of the United States of America” — a knock, perhaps unintentional, against Clinton, Kerry's predecessor.
But, even as Biden ticked off his serious credentials, he was still, as Harkin pointed out, "just Joe" — a reminder of how Biden, with his relatable style, must at times grasp for gravitas.
“No one ever doubts I mean what I say. The problem is, I usually say all that I mean,” Biden said later, to laughs.
But he wasn’t ready to talk about 2016. Not yet.
“I’m ready to win some House and Senate seats, now,” Biden said to a reporter's question.
And after that?
He wouldn't say.