How Biden Boosted the Democratic Ticket

Six-term Delaware senator added experience and emotion to Obama ticket.

November 5, 2008, 4:48 AM

Nov. 5, 2008 — -- Since being selected as President-elect Barack Obama's running mate on Aug. 23, Joe Biden has spent an eventful, albeit overshadowed, 2½ months stumping for the Democratic ticket.

"Historically there are three different kinds of vice presidential choices: Mr. August, Mr. October and Mr. January," Biden's spokesman David Wade told ABC News. "I think we can argue that Joe Biden is that rare combination of all three rolled into one. He had a big August, introduced at the convention. He won his debate in October. And he's been Barack Obama's defender in chief on the battleground-state campaign trail. And he'll be the strong partner Barack Obama wanted for governing in January."

On the campaign trail, the 65-year-old Delaware senator -- now vice president-elect -- proved to be both an asset and, at times, a liability, vouching for Obama's character and attacking Republican rival Arizona Sen. John McCain while also living up to his gaffe-prone reputation.

Through it all, Biden was the forgotten candidate, garnering the least media attention of the four politicians on the two tickets, especially overshadowed by Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, his Republican counterpart.

Biden toured the country in a near-empty charter jet, with nary a print journalist for long stretches of time, just five network television reporters that made up his traveling press corps.

But a closer look at the senator's time on the campaign trail tells a tale that is vintage Biden: sometimes a powerful advocate for Obama, other times a consistent risk for producing another infamous foot-in-mouth moment.

Most notable of Biden's gaffes came in his recent remarks at a Seattle fundraiser, when he ignited a firestorm of questions about Obama's experience after guaranteeing that the Illinois senator would face an international crisis soon after settling into the Oval Office.

"Mark my words," Biden said Oct. 17. "It will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy. The world is looking. We're about to elect a brilliant 47-year-old senator president of the United States of America. Remember I said it standing here if you don't remember anything else I said. Watch, we're gonna have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy."

And Biden didn't stop there -- "It's not gonna be apparent that we're right," he added about the decisions they would make in response to the crisis.

The comment was the most inflammatory of a string of off-the-cuff Biden remarks that resonated for their surprising candor.

Just weeks after being named as Obama's running mate, Biden said that Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., might have been a better pick for the vice presidential slot.

"Make no mistake about this," he said in Nashua, N.H., on Sept. 10. "Hillary Clinton is as qualified or more qualified than I am to be vice president of the United States of America, let's get that straight. She's a truly close personal friend, she is qualified to be president of the United States of America, she's easily qualified to be vice president of the United States of America and quite frankly it might have been a better pick than me."

Many of Biden's other gaffes were more lighthearted and relatively harmless, such as when, on Sept. 9 in Columbia, Mo., he asked a supporter in a wheelchair to stand up, or when he described how former President Franklin Roosevelt had gone on television to calm the public during the 1929 stock market crash (although FDR didn't come to power until 1932 and TVs weren't around) ? or on Oct. 15 in Athens, Ohio, when he recounted a college arrest.

"I just said to young, two young women I had met, said, 'Well why don't you -- we'll be right back,' I said, 'Well I'll come with you,' and they said 'OK,'" Biden recalled. "And I walked into their dormitory and was immediately accosted by a cop who arrested me because back in those days men were not allowed in women's dormitories. But I promise you I never breached the first floor and it was only a temporary detention. But that's what I most remember about Athens."

Later that same speech, Biden emphasized the Democrats' focus on "a three-letter word: jobs. J-O-B-S."

Days later, NBC's Jay Leno made fun of Biden's mess-up in a Los Angeles appearance on "The Tonight Show."

"I knew I shouldn't have had lunch with Dan Quayle," Biden said. "I mean, I don't know what happened there."

"I've made many a gaffe in my life and I suspect I'll make a whole lot more," Biden said.

Biden's self-deprecating humor was also needed when Leno poked fun at another Biden trait: his close-talking, touchy-feely nature.

However, despite -- or perhaps because of -- Biden's verbosity, the Democratic senator was not accessible to his traveling press corps, which did not have a chance to ask him questions since a Sept. 7 flight to Kalispell, Mont., which included a 13-minute Biden answer to a question on Iraq, until an Oct. 31 press avail in Lima, Ohio.

Fortunately for local media outlets, the senator has conducted more than 200 interviews in his time as Obama's running mate, giving him the chance to connect to supporters.

Even though at times the campaign might have wanted Biden to tone down certain comments, he has consistently displayed a penchant to go off script. Working a Maumee, Ohio, rope line Sept. 17, Biden said the Democratic ticket did not support clean coal, despite both his and Obama's statements to the contrary.

"We're not supporting clean coal," Biden said. "Guess what? China is building two every week, two dirty coal plants. And it's polluting the United States, it's causing people to die."

"No coal plants here in America!" Biden then said. "Build 'em, if they're gonna build 'em, over there and make 'em clean because they're killing you."

"Whether he is explaining Barack Obama's tax plan with tides of patriotism or guaranteeing that Obama's inexperience would generate an international crisis, it should tell you something that Joe Biden is only relevant when making mistakes," McCain-Palin spokesman Ben Porritt told ABC News. "Biden's often amusing gaffes are expected but not as concerning as his errors in judgment."

As he used Biden's gaffes in TV ads blasting Obama, McCain called Biden "the gift that keeps on giving."

As Election Day approached, it appeared that Biden had been "muzzled," as Porritt put it, delivering carefully scripted 20-minute speeches read closely from the teleprompter and staying on message far more than earlier in the campaign. Combined with not doing a press availability since Sept. 7 or fielding audience questions in a town-hall style format since Sept. 10, the lawmaker who was the most accessible and colorful member of either ticket at the start of his time on the campaign trail had become the least so by the end of it.

"After cutting off members of the media for asking tough questions, press reports now indicate that Barack Obama has muzzled his own running mate for offering insight into Barack Obama's plan to raise taxes," Porritt said in a statement after Biden's Oct. 29 rally in Jupiter, Fla. "Biden's speech today is further proof that his entire candidacy is nothing more than scripted bluster and unscripted blunders."

But despite Biden's slip-ups, the Obama campaign believed the Senate Foreign Relations chairman was an asset for the party, bolstering Obama's foreign-policy credentials and bringing added experience to the ticket.

One month after the running mates were named in late August, a Sept. 29 ABCNews/Washington Post poll showed that Biden's selection had made 25 percent of people more likely to vote for Obama, with 13 percent of people less likely to do so -- a net positive of 12 percentage points.

On the other hand, people said Palin's presence as a running mate made 23 percent of them more likely to vote for McCain, but 32 percent of them less likely to support the GOP ticket -- a net negative of nine percentage points.

"The contrast with John McCain's vice presidential choice is dramatic," Wade said. "When battleground state newspapers endorse Barack Obama, they mention his wise choice of Joe Biden as a reason why. Palin? Not so much. Biden's done 200 interviews as of [Oct. 28] and after each debate he appeared on every network morning show to make the case for Obama. Palin? Not so much."

Some major newspapers have agreed, with The New York Times touting Obama's selection of Biden in its Oct. 23 endorsement of the Democratic ticket.

"Mr. Obama would have a learning curve on foreign affairs, but he has already showed sounder judgment than his opponent on these critical issues," read the editorial. "His choice of Senator Joseph Biden -- who has deep foreign-policy expertise -- as his running mate is another sign of that sound judgment. Mr. McCain's long interest in foreign policy and the many dangers this country now faces make his choice of Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska more irresponsible."

At every rally across the nation, Biden blasted McCain's economic and foreign-policy plans while touting Obama's judgment and character.

Biden also visited parts of the country that Obama had not hit, regions that fell into Republican hands four years ago. Of Biden's 67 events, not counting fundraisers and joint rallies with Obama, 35 were in counties that were carried by Bush in 2004.

The six-term senator, as he did Sept. 5 in Langhorne, Pa., has frequently quoted a line that former President Truman once said to a supporter who yelled out "Give 'em hell, Harry!"

"And he yelled back, 'I'm not going to give them hell -- I'm going to tell them the truth and they're going to think it's hell!'" Biden said, as always garnering huge applause from his audience.

And give the Republicans hell Biden has, ripping McCain and Palin on a regular basis, as he did in a blistering address at his home state's Jefferson-Jackson Dinner Oct. 13.

"Barack Obama and I want to attack America's problems," Biden said. "It appears that all Sarah Palin and John McCain want to do is attack us. We want to attack problems. They want to attack us."

Although he initially displayed a reluctance to go after Palin -- calling her "good-looking" in Toledo Aug. 31 in his first comments on McCain's surprise pick as running mate -- Biden eventually began to blast his GOP counterpart.

"She said in the middle of that debate as she was winking at y'all, she said she'd been listening to my speeches since she was in second grade," Biden said of the lawmakers' much-watched vice presidential debate Oct. 2 in St. Louis. "Well, I guess, just like she can see Russia from Alaska, she can see Delaware from Alaska."

The only problem was that Palin had never made that comment at the Show Me State showdown, but rather she said it days before at a Columbus, Ohio, rally. No matter. Biden, whose penchant for hyperbole and embellishing the truth is well known, pressed on with his punch line.

"She looked over at me, she said, 'well, I was in second grade when Sen. Biden got first elected.' I was inclined to say, 'but yes, governor, you were in sixth grade the last time Sen. McCain had a good idea.' You know, but I didn't, I didn't."

When the two vice presidential nominees stacked up against each other in polls, Biden emerged the clear winner.

An Oct. 21 Pew poll found that 60 percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of Biden, compared to 44 percent of Palin, while an Oct. 15 Bloomberg poll showed that 76 percent of registered voters think Biden is prepared to be president, while 43 percent say the same for Palin.

The senator has also attracted moderates as well, with nearly four in 10 moderates in an Oct. 7 ABC News/Washington Post saying they were less likely to support McCain after the Palin pick, only two said they were more likely. Compare that to Biden attracting three times as many moderates to Obama as he drives away.

And it's not just that voters believe Biden is ready to lead, but the Irish-Catholic Biden has helped Obama among Catholics. A Sept. 9-14 Pew survey found Obama and McCain virtually deadlocked among Catholics, with the former up 45 percent to 44 percent; six weeks later, Obama's advantage had skyrocketed to a 54 percent to 34 percent lead.

Along with the lawmaker's sense of humor and startling honesty, another Biden staple on the stump was his emotional addresses.

The senator lost his first wife and child in a 1972 car accident that also seriously injured his two young sons, Beau and Hunter.

Just days after being named as Obama's running mate, Biden became very emotional when thanking supporters at a Delaware delegation breakfast in Denver.

"This is a great honor being nominated vice president of the United States," Biden said Aug. 26. "And it is an honor and I'm proud of it. I don't mean in any way to diminish it. But it pales in comparison to the honor that I've had representing you," Biden said, choking up. "I apologize for getting a little emotional."

His Delaware supporters, Biden said, helped him persevere through personal tragedy.

"There've been people in this room who, when the significant events of my life occurred, were literally knocking on my door, were bringing, you know, a roasted chicken to the house because you knew things were so messed up, no one was able to think about eating," Biden recalled of the 1972 tragedy. "There were people who were there, I could go around the room, and a lot of people aren't here in this room, would just come by, pick up the boys and they'd take them. Take them to everything from the beach to the amusement park. This is a big deal. You're a big deal."

A month later in Greensburg, Pa., Biden shed tears once again as he thanked the NFL's Pittsburgh Steelers' owner Art Rooney for also helping him and his sons in the aftermath of the car crash.

Rooney sent Steelers' fullback Rocky Bleier to Wilmington to deliver footballs to Beau and Hunter just days before Christmas 1972.

"I said guys where'd you get the ball, and they said 'Daddy, Rocky Bleier gave it to us,'" Biden said Sept. 25 as his eyes welled over with tears. "Mr. Rooney Sr., Dan's dad, had, without any fanfare, without, without any announcement, without anything other than his incredible decency. ... I really apologize, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I shouldn't have tried to do this."

But Biden overcame the car crash, just as he did a bout with two aneurysms during his failed 1988 presidential campaign. Even during his last two months on the trail, the senator has faced family challenges.

A day after the lawmaker's vice presidential debate, Biden's son Beau deployed to Iraq, with Biden delivering a brief address at the departure ceremony in Dover, Del.

"Members of the National Guard," Biden began, before pausing for a few seconds to compose himself as he looked out at the troops. "I have come here many times before as a Delawarean, as a U.S. senator, but today I come, as you prepare to deploy, as a father, a father who got some sage advice from his son this morning -- 'Dad, keep it short. We're in formation.'"

Biden's rough week in early October quickly worsened shortly thereafter, when wife Jill's mother died after a long illness, leading to Biden temporarily suspending his campaign to grieve for his mother-in-law.

But as he has done throughout his career, the senator battled through his personal travails, returning to the campaign trail the next week, where he resumed being at once Obama's best advocate, though at other times one of his biggest liabilities.

"I get that there's a tendency to obsess about contrived controversies," said Wade. "But I'm convinced that when this campaign is over, for the first time in a long time, the pundits will say that vice presidential sections did matter and Joe Biden will be remembered as 2008's unsung hero, chief validator and defender in chief."

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