By Charlie Savage, Globe Staff
DES MOINES -- Misstatements about the crisis in Pakistan by Mike Huckabee, the leader in polls of Republicans heading into Thursday's Iowa caucuses, have been a major focus in the GOP race during the past week. Today Senator Joe Biden of Delaware tried to inject the same issue into the Democratic side of the campaign.
Making his closing arguments before a packed crowd at a downtown bar, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman argued that he, alone among the Democratic contenders, has the experience and knowledge "to know exactly what to do" from his first day in office about tough foreign policy issues.
To underscore his point, Biden took a swipe at rivals for recent statements which he said showed they aren't ready to deal with problems in Pakistan -- the nuclear-armed Muslim nation where last week's assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto has unleashed chaos -- as well as he is.
"We have a number of candidates who are well-intended, but don't even understand Pakistan," Biden said.
Biden did not name his rivals, but made clear that his main focus was Senator Hillary Clinton of New York.
"One of the leading candidates said -- God love her," Biden began. The crowd laughed -- Clinton is the only woman in the race -- prompting Biden to say, "Good people are running!" before continuing:
"But to say Musharraf is up for election! Musharraf was elected --fairly or unfairly -- president six months ago. It's a parliamentary election" that is coming up in Pakistan, Biden said.
The Biden campaign later supplied two instances to the Globe in which it said Clinton mistakenly suggested that President Pervez Musharraf is on the ballot in upcoming elections in Pakistan.
On Dec. 28, during an interview on CNN, Clinton said, "If President Musharraf wishes to stand for election, then he should abide by the same rules that every other candidate will have to follow."
And on Dec. 30, during an interview on ABC's "This Week," Clinton responded to a question about whether Musharraf should step down by saying, "He could be the only person on the ballot. I don't think that's a real election."
Biden added yesterday: "To say there hasn't been a peaceful transfer of power and that it's always bloody -- not true! The last 19 years in Pakistan there has been a peaceful transition of power. How can you lead immediately if you don't know these basic facts?"
Clinton, who has repeatedly argued that her experience makes her "ready to lead from day one," stated that Pakistan is "not a country that has had a history of peaceful successions" during the Dec. 30 "This Week" appearance.
The Clinton campaign quickly fired back, arguing that in a Dec. 27 appearance on MSNBC Biden made a similar mistake. He said that "Bhutto, I'm convinced, would have won a significant majority" in the upcoming election, when he instead should have said "Bhutto's party."
Biden also attacked "another one of my colleagues, a good friend, a good man" for saying that the US should send Vice President Cheney to Pakistan to persuade Musharraf to step aside and let a coalition government take over.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" Biden said, as the Democratic crowd laughed at the mere mention of Cheney's name. "The architect of the failed policy with Pakistan and we're going to send him to sit down with Musharraf to work this out?"
The suggestion that Bush should send Cheney as a high-level envoy to Pakistan was made last week by New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who has also touted his foreign policy experience. Richardson noted that Musharraf might listen to Cheney because they two "are buddies."
In the Des Moines Register poll published today, Biden was in fifth place, with the support of four percent of likely Democratic caucus-goers.