Biden adds experience to Obama ticket

DENVER — The clips of gaffes and politically awkward Joe Biden statements could fill hours of TV time:

"We can call it quits and withdraw from Iraq. I think that would be a gigantic mistake. Or we can set a deadline for pulling out, which I fear will only encourage our enemies to wait us out — equally a mistake." Biden in 2005.

"You cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin' Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent. I'm not joking." Biden in 2006.

"John McCain is a personal friend, a great friend, and I would be honored to run with or against John McCain, because I think the country would be better off." Biden in 2007.

Yes, Sen. Barack Obama's new running mate is a big mouth who could cause distraction after distraction in the next two months.

But Delaware Sen. Joe Biden probably is the safest, most pragmatic pick Obama could make, a man whose qualifications for president no one questions and who shores up Obama's weak spots. In tapping a nearly four-decade fixture in Washington and widely respected expert on national security and foreign policy, Obama tacitly acknowledged that promises of hope and change may not be enough to win.

"Joe Biden is that rare mix — for decades, he has brought change to Washington, but Washington hasn't changed him," Obama said Saturday at a rally in Springfield, Ill., with Biden at his side. "He's an expert on foreign policy whose heart and values are rooted firmly in the middle class. He has stared down dictators and spoken out for America's cops and firefighters. He is uniquely suited to be my partner as we work to put our country back on track."

The Biden pick won't fundamentally shake up the neck-and-neck presidential race against McCain, as people vote for presidents not vice presidents. But he brings real assets to the ticket, including an ability to take Republicans head-on with their perceived advantage on national security and his personal connection and appeal to many of the voters most tepid about the Democratic nominee — Catholics, seniors and blue-collar Americans.

"They had to choose between picking experience and change, and they ultimately made the decision that Obama has already established himself as the change candidate and what he needed to shore up is the experience side that people had doubts about," said Democratic consultant Bernie Campbell of Tampa.

• • •

There were plenty of Obama loyalists positive that Sen. Evan Bayh could have delivered Indiana's 13 electoral votes, or Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine could have swung that state while bolstering Obama's new-blood theme. But not since John F. Kennedy tapped Lyndon Johnson in 1960 has any running mate made a tangible difference in the electoral college outcome, and Biden, 65, adds depth, scrappiness, and a blunt, spontaneous style that can be both a pro and con.

Underneath Biden's French cuffs, tailored suits and verbosity that stands out even in Washington, is a guy who rides the train to work every day, and with the lowest net worth in the Senate, understands what it means to take out a second mortgage to pay for his kids' college.

He's also a pugnacious campaigner, likely to play the running mate's traditional attack dog mode far more effectively than John Edwards did four years ago. In Springfield on Saturday, he made clear his longtime friendship with McCain won't be an obstacle.

"Over the past 18 months, I've watched Barack meet those challenges with judgment, intelligence and steel in his spine," Biden said. "I've watched as he's inspired millions of Americans to this new cause. And during those 18 months, I must tell you, frankly, I have been disappointed in my friend John McCain, who gave in to the right wing of his party and gave in to the Swift Boat politics he once so deplored."

Popular among seniors and Jewish voters, Biden could be helpful to Obama in Florida and in states like Pennsylvania and Ohio where Obama struggled during the primaries.

"The Jewish community loves Joe Biden," said Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, who also touted Biden's working-class appeal. "He has been a huge supporter of Israel and has been so in a very erudite fashion, because he knows all the players, not only in Israel but in the Palestinian Authority."

Biden has extensive Florida connections, including a brother who lived in South Florida; Michael Adler of Miami, his former national finance chairman and the former National Jewish Democratic Council chairman; Luis Navarro, his Senate chief of staff, who used to be executive director of the Florida Democratic Party; and even a lifelong friendship with former Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Gallagher.

"He's a true lunch-bucket Democrat. It's a perfect choice," said veteran Democratic fundraiser Mitchell Berger of Fort Lauderdale, who has known Biden for 30 years. "A generation of Democratic voters that Sen. Obama is not doing as well with as he would like at this point would be very attracted to Joe Biden."

• • •

The Irish Catholic son of a car salesman, Biden grew up in Scranton, Pa. — an area where Hillary Rodham Clinton clobbered Obama — before moving to Delaware at age 10.

He also has a compelling story. Obama was just 11 years old when Biden was first elected to the Senate in 1972 and faced tragedy weeks after the election. A tractor trailer broadsided the family station wagon carrying their Christmas tree, killing his first wife, Neilia, and 13-month-old daughter, Naomi, and seriously injuring his sons Beau and Hunt.

Biden was sworn into the Senate beside his sons' hospital beds, and then took the train home every night from Washington to be with his family. To this day he commutes almost every day from Delaware, and people on both sides of the aisle describe the Foreign Relations Committee chairman as decent and down to earth.

"No one on the Democratic side knows more about foreign policy than Sen. Biden," Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Arlen Specter said. "He's been an articulate spokesman on the subject. He also knows about domestic policy. He's been a leader on crime control."

Former Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman, a strong Clinton supporter who is thinking of not voting in the presidential election, said the pick was solid but unlikely to help much.

"I don't think it helps in terms of Hillary supporters who are still upset or among women, who he hasn't really reached out to," she said.

Obama managed to keep his pick from leaking until the end, ultimately announcing it about 3 a.m. with a text message to supporters: "Friend — I have some important news that I want to make official. I've chosen Joe Biden to be my running mate."

Not only did he help fuel excitement leading into the convention, but in typical Obama style, he used it to collect hundreds of thousands of cell phone numbers and e-mails that can help the campaign organize voters.

Republicans were quick to cast the Biden choice as an acknowledgement that Obama lacks sufficient experience. They noted that Biden himself, while campaigning for president, said Obama wasn't ready.

"There has been no harsher critic of Barack Obama's lack of experience than Joe Biden. Biden has denounced Barack Obama's poor foreign policy judgment and has strongly argued in his own words what Americans are quickly realizing — that Barack Obama is not ready to be president," said McCain campaign spokesman Ben Porritt.

Liberals are likely to find plenty of areas to criticize, including Biden's strong support of a controversial 2005 bankruptcy reform bill applauded by the credit industry and especially for his early support for the Iraq war, which Obama opposed.

But Biden subsequently became a fierce critic of Bush's handling of the war, and he has some extra inoculation on his Iraq vote: His son, Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, is a national guard captain shipping out to Iraq in October.

Biden's presidential track record is spotty. He ran in 1988 and dropped out after revelations that his speech had lifted lines from a British politician — a controversy that seems quaint compared to more modern presidential scandals.

His campaign for the 2008 presidency nearly fell apart before it began, when Biden solidified his foot-in-mouth reputation by describing Obama as "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy."

Biden apologized by phone to Obama, who brushed it off as insignificant.

Wes Allison contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8241.

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Biden adds experience to Obama ticket 08/23/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 26, 2008 2:41pm]

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