Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to this politically influential heartland state is bringing him up close to his own party’s opposition to the White House’s endorsement of possible military action against Syria.
Biden was to headline a Sunday fundraiser for U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, an annual steak picnic for a lawmaker who’s popular with anti-war Democrats.
Even if Biden sidesteps talk of Syria, the issue was shaping up to be as much a part of the backdrop as the bales of hay and smoke from the grilling steaks, and in a state where he will have to have a strong early presence should he seek the presidency in 2016.
“That’s going to be a little sensitive,” Richard Machacek, a delegate for Barack Obama in 2008, said in reference to the threat of U.S. military action against Syria. “It flies in the face of what the president campaigned on here.”
Obama rode an anti-war wave to victory in Iowa’s 2008 presidential caucuses. He had proposed limited air strikes in Syria in response to what the U.S. says was a chemical weapons attack last month that killed more than 1,400 people in a Damascus suburb. His administration blames the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
A U.S.-Russian agreement announced Saturday would rid Syria of its chemical stockpile. But Obama made clear that “if diplomacy fails, the United States remains prepared to act.”
His own party remains cool at best to a military strike. Obama has struggled to win support from members of Congress, including Democrats, whose constituents have endured more than a decade of war.
An Associated Press poll taken Sept. 6-8 showed 34 percent of Democrats said they wanted Congress to back military action. More than three-fourths of Democrats said they thought any military action in Syria was at least somewhat likely to turn into a long-term commitment of forces, including 44 percent who said it was extremely likely.
The poll was taken before Obama pledged not to put ground troops in Syria.
Cedar Falls Democrat David Kabel, an early and devout Obama supporter, is skeptical, even after Obama’s speech to the nation Tuesday night. “I just don’t know that you can reel it in once you get started,” he said.
The reaction to anything Biden says about Syria was expected to be closely watched and noted.
Biden is considering running for the White House in 2016, and the crowd he planned to mingle with Sunday, including many familiar with the two-time presidential candidate, would have the opening say during the caucuses.
Harkin has said that he was leaning against supporting a military strike, though a vote has been postponed to allow the diplomatic option to develop.
“Harkin has always been the anti-war candidate,” said Democratic activist Paulee Lipsman. “His strongest supporters agree with that position.”
While Harkin supported limited strikes in Kosovo in 1997 and Libya in 2012 under Democratic presidents, Harkin has largely opposed recent wars under Republican presidents, endearing him to his party’s left.
He voted against the 1991 Gulf War resolution under President George H. W. Bush. While he voted for the resolution ahead of the 2003 Iraq war under President George W. Bush, he later called the vote a mistake and endorsed anti-war candidate Howard Dean in Iowa’s 2004 caucuses.
Obama made a special appeal during his speech Tuesday to “my friends on the left,” asking them to consider the images of the hundreds of children who died in the Aug. 21 gas attack. “Sometimes resolutions and statements of condemnation are simply not enough.
He may as well have been speaking directly to those Iowa Democrats who were drawn to his vocal opposition to the war in Iraq, a position that set him apart from chief rival Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2008 and on the path to winning the White House.
Harkin aides and supporters play down any possible outward hostility toward Biden.
“People will be polite,” Lipsman said.
With Clinton and Biden as the most prominent Democrats being discussed for 2016, Obama said in a broadcast interview that he suspects both politicians would say it was “way too premature” to focus on the 2016 race.
Asked about Biden’s visit, the president told ABC’s “This Week” that “Iowa’s a big state and he’s an old friend of Tom Harkin’s.” Biden is a former Delaware senator.
Associated Press Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta in Washington contributed to this report.
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