By Kay Henderson
INDIANOLA, Iowa (Reuters) - With most Democrats keeping an eye on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for hints about her 2016 plans, Vice President Joe Biden's appearance at Iowa's 36th annual "Tom Harkin Steak Fry," may one day be viewed as a telling sign of his presidential intentions.
The Democratic fund-raiser named for the veteran senator from Iowa is closely watched in this Midwestern state, which helps winnow out the crop of presidential contenders every four years leading up to the Iowa caucuses, the first voting event of each presidential cycle.
Addressing the crowd at the Warren County Fairgrounds, Biden mentioned 2016 in a sideways fashion, making light of the national media presence that showed up for the event.
"It's amazing when you come to speak at the Steak Fry a whole bunch of people seem to take notice. I don't know why the hell that is," Biden said.
The 70-year-old Biden has left open the possibility of a run for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination in order to get a chance to succeed President Barack Obama.
Many in Washington believe he will not run if Clinton runs, and she is making a regular series of public appearances that could easily be interpreted as setting the stage for a campaign
Biden extolled Obama's leadership, defending his handling of the economy and the crisis over Syria's chemical weapons. And, Biden gave himself a bit of credit for being part of the team.
Obama, said Biden, reduced the national debt by $2.5 trillion "and in the process we've created 2.5 million new jobs. But folks, there's a lot more we have to do."
Biden also tweaked Russian President Vladimir Putin for a New York Times opinion article last week in which he criticized Obama for praising "American exceptionalism."
"It's always been the story ... of the journey of this country that the American people have been ahead, and I know I've been criticized for saying this, but I'll say it again: That's what makes America exceptional," said Biden.
Putin helped reach a deal to gain control of Syria's chemical weapons, Biden said, "not because he's a good guy, (but) because of naked self-interest."
Harkin told reporters last Thursday that Biden could find "fertile ground" in Iowa should he choose to run in 2016, but did not predict whether Clinton or Biden would prevail.
"They're both well liked in Iowa. There's no doubt about that. But you know there's a lot of time between now and 2015 when things really start to move," the senator said.
Obama himself refused to be drawn into discussion of his successor in an interview broadcast on Sunday on ABC's "This Week."
"What I would say to folks out there is we are tremendously lucky to have an incredible former secretary of state who couldn't have served me better, and an incredible vice president who couldn't be serving me better," he said.
Eighty-seven year old Betty Byrd of Boone, Iowa, has supported Biden "from way back" in 1987. She supported Biden in the 2008 Iowa caucuses and would support him again if Biden runs in 2016.
"He says all the right things," Byrd said of Biden. "Even though he's getting older, that's not going to slow him down ... He can handle everything."
(Writing by Steve Holland; editing by Jackie Frank)