WASHINGTON (AP) -- Vice President Joe Biden may run for president in 2016, or he may not. But he wants Americans to know he could.
With three years to go until next presidential election, Biden is keeping his name near the top of a list of likely contenders even if the prime spot seems to have already been claimed by former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The vice president is polishing his connections and racking up favors in states key to winning the Democratic presidential nomination.
He has a crowded schedule of campaign events to boost Democrats running in mid-term elections this November. Many of those stops are in states that will be critical in the state-by-state Democratic primary vote.
Biden's advisers and friends say those events reflect 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 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.
The Iowa caucuses kick off the primary calendar, making the heartland state crucial to the nominating process.
Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin's annual steak fry, to be held this year 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, a Midwestern state that kicks off the primary calendar.
"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 as originally intended. But the Iowa trip is the latest in a string of Biden appearances that further his ties to key primary states -- starting in the weekend Obama was inaugurated for his second term.
One of a few invitations to Biden's private swearing-in went to Maggie Hassan, the governor of New Hampshire, another state critical to the primary.
Hassan, a Democrat and outspoken Clinton supporter in 2008, would be a powerful ally for any 2016 candidate. 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.
And in May, Biden flew down to South Carolina, where he gave the keynote address at a party dinner. He also appeared at a fish fry for Rep. Jim Clyburn, a member of House Democratic leadership, receiving rock-star treatment from an adoring crowd at 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.
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