WASHINGTON (AP) — Joe Biden may run for president in 2016, or he may not. But he wants you to know he could.
Iowa. New Hampshire. South Carolina. Michigan. Three years out from the next presidential election, the vice president is polishing his connections and racking up favors in all the right states to ensure he stays part of the conversation, keeping his name near the top of a list of likely contenders even if the prime spot seems to have already been claimed by Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Biden's advisers and friends say his crowded schedule of campaign events to boost Democrats in key primary states reflects his role as vice president and a party leader, not some grand strategy to lay the groundwork for a presidential campaign he hasn't yet decided to undertake.
But Democratic activists and donors say the signals are all too clear when a two-time presidential candidate who is openly entertaining a third run makes the trek to early primary states.
"He's doing the smart thing. He's moving around. He's going to the early states. He's letting folks know he's interested," said Dick Harpootlian, who chaired the South Carolina Democratic Party until earlier this year. He described the stops as a chance to "meet all the major players in the Democratic primary process, in one room, in one night."
That Biden, 70, is still interested in the top job is far from a secret, and in his current office, the writing is on the wall.
"I have two portraits hanging: one of Jefferson, one of Adams. Both vice presidents who became presidents," Biden told GQ last month, noting the former presidents' self-satisfied expressions. "I joke to myself, I wonder what their portraits looked like when they were vice presidents."
As a two-term sitting vice president, Senate veteran and Democratic Party luminary, Biden in any other year would have the right of first refusal for the Democratic nomination.
This time, though, Biden's decision and prospects are both irrefutably colored by Clinton, who a growing number of Democratic groups are hyping as President Barack Obama's heir apparent as they seek to recruit her to join the race. So although Biden and other Democrats are looking to Clinton before they decide how to proceed, the vice president is signaling that nobody should count him out just yet.
A trip next month to Iowa to headline a major Democratic fundraiser, announced Sunday, offered the latest infusion of energy into the will-he-or-won't-he parlor game already consuming much of the Democratic establishment.
Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin's annual steak fry, to be held this year in Indianola in mid-September, is a marquee event on the Iowa Democratic calendar and a magnet for White House hopefuls looking to curry favor with donors and party bigwigs in Iowa, which kicks off the primary calendar with its first-in-the-nation caucuses.
"The people who really do the work for the party and a lot of the funders that contribute, will be at the steak fry, no doubt about it," Harkin said in an interview.
Biden's office sought to play down the trip, telling reporters that Biden had committed previously to attending Harkin's event, but couldn't attend in 2012 and took a rain check. But the Iowa swing is the latest in a string of Biden appearances that further his ties to key primary states — starting in Washington on the weekend Obama was inaugurated for his second term.
One of a few invitations to Biden's private swearing-in went to New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat and outspoken Clinton supporter in 2008 who would be a powerful ally for any 2016 candidate in the state's first-in-the-nation primary. But first, Hassan must be re-elected next year. So later in August, Biden will head to Maine to raise campaign dollars for Hassan at the home of a prominent Democratic lobbyist.
Biden has also campaigned this year in key states on the Democratic fundraising circuit, like California and Massachusetts, and has held periodic "donor maintenance" events in Washington, keeping his contacts with the Democratic donor class fresh.
And in May, Air Force Two whisked Biden down to South Carolina, where he keynoted the state party's Jefferson-Jackson dinner, another marquee event, and appeared at a fish fry for Rep. Jim Clyburn, a member of House Democratic leadership, where Biden received rock-star treatment from an adoring crowd kicking back beers as Biden riffed on voting rights and the plight of the middle class.
"As soon as I show up in South Carolina, the Washington press corps comes out and says, 'Is Biden getting ready?'" he said that night in May, a wink to the fact that while his advisers claim he's not trying to encourage 2016 speculation, he's not exactly trying to discourage it, either.
Reach Josh Lederman on Twitter at http://twitter.com/joshledermanAP