Though small in size, Delaware big on Biden

ByMaureen Milford, USA TODAY
October 9, 2008, 10:46 PM

WILMINGTON, Del. -- In this tiny state, where residents can run into their congressman at Home Depot, nearly everyone has a story about Sen. Joe Biden.

Take Mary Hartnett, 72, of Wilmington. She was walking home from church in 1977 when a purse-snatcher struck. Biden, who was driving by, jumped out of his car and hot-footed it after the culprit, she says, running through backyards and scaling fences. The thief dropped the pocketbook. The next day, Hartnett sealed it in plastic and put it in her cedar chest.

"I really thought some day he would become president and I would get him to sign it," she says.

Now, Hartnett is waiting to get her purse signed by a vice president. Such personal connections between voters and Biden could explain why many in Delaware, which is less than 2,500 square miles and has fewer than 900,000 people, are proud that he was tapped as the running mate of Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama.

"There is a certain mythic element about these stories, but usually they're based in reality," says Joe Pika, a professor of political science at the University of Delaware. "I think because he's so much in the national limelight, they've taken on a kind of special glow. They've become part of the legend of Joe Biden."

Part of Biden's appeal here can be ascribed to the uniqueness of a state that is about the size of some congressional districts.

A quick sampling finds people who say they knew Biden's father, sister or children, lived near his boyhood home, went to Catholic high school with him, lived in the same dormitory at the University of Delaware, encountered him at the drugstore or dined with him at a fundraiser.

Since meeting Biden at a peach festival about a decade ago, Judy Fisher, 73, of Middletown has proudly displayed a sticker on her van that says only "Joe."

To be sure, Biden has his detractors here, although even Republicans admit it's exciting to have a Delawarean on the national ticket.

"I liken it to a college buddy getting married. You might be happy that he's getting married, but you might not be glad he's marrying your sister," says Tom Ross, chairman of the state Republican Party.

Biden presents himself as a blue-collar warrior, but some people say that regular-guy image is at odds with his lifestyle.

"He lives in Chateau County, cheek-by-jowl with the du Pont family," says Jack Schreppler, a Wilmington lawyer and life-long Democrat.

Others haven't forgotten that when Biden ran for president in 1987, he cribbed from a speech by Neil Kinnock, then the British Labor Party leader. Biden apologized. By the time he dropped out of the race, there were other revelations.

He acknowledged that he had exaggerated his academic credentials at a New Hampshire campaign stop. There was a furor over his admission that in his first semester in law school, he used five pages of a law review article without proper attribution. Biden got an "F" and had to repeat the course.

"That, to me, shows a moral fissure in the man's character," says William Prickett, a retired lawyer and a supporter of Republican nominee John McCain.

Prickett says he was outraged that Biden said publicly in 2007 that a driver involved in the accident that killed his first wife and baby daughter was a "guy who allegedly … drank his lunch." Investigators determined that alcohol did not play a role in the 1972 crash. The late Curtis Dunn was not at fault, investigators found, and he was not charged.

Still, a Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind Poll in September found that 65% of Delawareans have a favorable opinion of Biden, and 73% think he is a good choice for vice president.

In the presidential election, 56% said they were most likely to vote for or were leaning toward Obama and Biden, compared with 36% most likely to vote for or leaning toward McCain and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. In 2004, 53% of voters cast their ballots for Sen. John Kerry. The last time Delawareans voted for a GOP presidential candidate was in 1988, when they went for George H.W. Bush.

"Generally, Delawareans are proud to have someone from a small state to get to high national office," says Wilmington lawyer Sid Balick, who hired Biden as a lawyer in the late 1960s.

"Politics becomes a lot more personal in Delaware because of the familiarity with the folks that get elected," says Brian Murphy, former treasurer of the state Democratic Party. He has his own story about Biden getting off a train from Washington and going straight to the hospital to see Murphy's father and other oil refinery workers who had been injured in a refinery accident.

"When he's in Delaware, more people call him 'Joe' than they call him 'Senator,' " Murphy says.

Milford reports for The News Journal in Wilmington, Del.

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