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Joe Biden in Iowa: What's he really running for?

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Kevin Wolf/AP

(Read caption) Vice President Joe Biden speaks in Washington, Jan. 22.

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Joe Biden is in Iowa Thursday. Officially, he’s talking about administration education policies at several stops. Unofficially, he’s ... well, we don’t really know what he’s doing unofficially. When a national-level politician visits Iowa at this point in the election cycle, it is traditional to speculate that he or she might run for president. But it’s getting harder to say that about President Obama’s loyal veep.

Look, Mr. Biden is in a tough spot. He wants to be president: He’s already run for the office, twice. He probably hums “Hail to the Chief” when he’s hanging around his man cave in the VP mansion on the weekend. He knows that vice presidents are supposed to be a political party’s next-in-line. He may find the prospect of bowing out to be humiliating.

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And maybe he will run again. He talks as if he might. “I haven’t made up my mind about that.... There’s plenty of time,” he told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos last month.

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Except there isn’t plenty of time. Everybody else who wants to be president is already running. They’ve set up fundraising committees, hired staff, and begun to float policy positions. Biden has done none of those things.

“Behind the scenes ... there are few signs the vice president is taking steps toward mounting a third bid for the top job at the White House,” writes Josh Lederman of the Associated Press.

So why is he keeping up the charade? Why go to Iowa to promote Mr. Obama’s plan for free community college tuition? They’ve got community colleges in Florida, too, and the weather is better.

For one thing, he might be trying to preserve what influence he has in Washington. He has to act as if he’s going to run for as long as he can fake it, goes this view, because when it becomes apparent there is no chance of a President Biden, he’ll be less effective as an administration surrogate. He’ll get less press coverage, fewer returned phone calls, and so on.

He also might be trying to position himself as the Democratic Party’s Plan B. Hillary Rodham Clinton is so far in front in early polls that she’s almost the presumptive nominee: Nobody else in the race can even see her taillights up ahead. But what if Mrs. Clinton actually pulls out, for some unknown reason? Stranger things have happened in US politics. Good old Joe might want to be standing there when the party chieftains start looking desperately for someone with greater name recognition than Martin O’Malley to pick up the banner.

But our real guess is that Biden is running for influence in a Clinton-dominated Democratic world. He wants to look as if he’s in the top tier, but not really threatening to compete with Clinton for delegates. If she wins, maybe Biden will be in the mix for a top administration job. Maybe he’ll even get his (possible) dream job, after the presidency: secretary of State.

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Remember, he was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and he’s always fancied himself a foreign policy expert. His successor in the chairmanship post was then-Sen. John Kerry, who’s now you-know-what. Clinton herself landed in Foggy Bottom after losing to Barack Obama in the 2008 primary race.

Yes, we’re just blue-skying here. But it kind of makes sense, doesn’t it? And if Clinton loses, there’s always “The Daily Show.” They’re going to be looking for a new host.