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September 15, 2013

Biden to face anti-war Democrats at Iowa picnic

DES MOINES, Iowa — Vice President Joe Biden is heading into the belly of Democrats' anti-war opposition, venturing into a politically influential heartland state for the first time since President Barack Obama publicly endorsed a possible military strike on Syria.

Biden is scheduled to headline a fundraiser in Iowa Sunday for Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, an annual steak picnic for the senator who is popular with anti-war Democrats.

Even if Biden sidesteps talk of Syria, the issue will be as much a part of the backdrop as the bales of hay and smoke from the grilling steaks, and in a place where he will have to plant his flag should he seek the presidency in 2016.

"That's going to be a little sensitive," said eastern Iowa Democrat Richard Machacek, an Obama delegate in 2008, referring to possible 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 a chemical weapons attack last month against more than 1,400 people in a Damascus suburb. The administration says Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government was behind the attack.

On Saturday Secretary of State John Kerry announced that he and Russia's foreign minister had reached an agreement to rid Syria of its chemical stockpile. Obama said in a statement the agreement was welcome news, but added 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. And 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 deploy ground troops in Syria.

Cedar Falls Democrat David Kabel, an early and devout Obama supporter, is skeptical, even after Obama's speech. "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 will be closely watched and noted. He is weighing another run for the White House in 2016, and the crowd he mingles with Sunday -- many of them familiar with the two-time presidential candidate -- will have the opening say during the caucuses.

Including Harkin.

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 longtime Iowa 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. And 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 presidential caucuses.

Obama made a special appeal during Tuesday's speech to "my friends on the left," asking them to consider the images of the hundreds of children who died in the August 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 Clinton and on the path to winning the White House.

Harkin aides and supporters play down any possible outward hostility toward Biden, as he strolls the Warren County fairgrounds south of Des Moines, flips a few steaks for the cameras and speaks Sunday afternoon.

"People will be polite," Lipsman said.

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