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Democratic running mate Sen. Joe Biden greets young supporters during a rally at Detroit Public Library on Sept. 28.
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Sen. Barack Obama and Biden disembark from Obama's campaign plane at Detroit Metropolitan International Airport on Sept. 28.
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Biden greets a supporter, while attending the Service Nation Presidential Candidates Forum at Columbia University on Sept. 11 in New York City.
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Obama and Biden appear at J. Douglas Galyon Depot during a rally in North Carolina on Sept. 27.
The vice presidential candidates are a study in contrasts.
One candidate is highly experienced, while the other is a relative novice. One is a new star in the political sky, while the other is a bit of an old hat.
And if Republican Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is not saying much on the campaign trail, Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden may be saying too much — or, at least, not always thinking before he spouts off.
He recently criticized an anti-Obama ad, even though he had not seen it. His remarks on a rope line sparked a firestorm of controversy in coal states. He also asked a guy in a wheelchair to stand up during a rally. And then there was this remark, made at a fundraiser last week — on camera — to CBS:
"When the stock market crashed, Franklin Roosevelt got on television and didn't just talk about the princes of greed. He said, 'Look, here's what happened.'"
The problem with that statement: Roosevelt was not yet president when the market crashed in 1929, and there was no TV.
Famous in the Senate for his long-windedness, Biden has disciplined himself more this year. But he still tends to loose lips that can, if not sink ships, at least make troublesome waves. In an interview with NPR, he dismissed his gaffes as not really serious.
"The real gaffes are McCain's gaffes," he said. "McCain's gaffes affect people's lives. McCain going from, at 9 o'clock in the morning ... deciding the economy is strong, to 11 o'clock, deciding the economy is in crisis. I am who I am."
Biden On The Campaign Trail
Biden does not get anything like the crowds that Palin attracts. His rallies more typically attract a few thousand at best. But his schedule is backbreaking. From early in the morning to late at night, he is speaking at public rallies and at fundraisers, where in one day last week he raised $1.8 million.
In the two days NPR spent with Biden, he was in suburban Virginia, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Louisville, southern Indiana, western Pennsylvania and, finally, Rhode Island.
His speeches are long, but not boring. They are substantive and full of Democratic propaganda.
Take his discussion of McCain's health care proposal, which he notes, accurately, would count employer health plans as income, meaning that the average family policy would add $12,000 to taxable income.
"If you're making $40,000 a year, you'll pay taxes on $52,000 a year. If you're making $50,000 a year, you'll pay taxes on $62,000 a year. Ladies and gentlemen, it's the largest tax increase in the history of America for the middle class," he said.
This almost always provokes groans from the crowd, but what Biden fails to say is that McCain's proposal would more than offset the increase for most people with tax credits for privately purchased insurance.
'This Is Not The John McCain I Knew'
As Biden often observes, he has known McCain for more than three decades. They've been pals since 1974, when the Navy assigned McCain to work as a staffer for Biden, then a young senator.
Biden, in his NPR interview last week, conceded that he has grown increasingly uncomfortable with what he calls McCain's personal attacks on Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama.
"I try to keep telling myself that John really doesn't know what his campaign is doing and some of the scurrilous stuff that it's doing," Biden said. "I mean, this is not the John McCain that I knew. The John McCain I knew, on the economy, I thought was wrong 25 years ago," he said. "The ambivalence I have is thinking, 'Say it ain't so, John.' This can't be your campaign."
Not that Biden has any difficulty attacking McCain's policies on, for example, the economy.
"Where was John a week ago?" he says. "Where was John a month ago? Where was John five years ago? Well, I'll tell you where he was. He was bragging to the Wall Street titans — that he now calls the merchants of greed — that he was shredding the regulations that were tying them down."
An Instinct For Connecting With People
Biden is the quintessential happy warrior. After a 30 or 40 minute speech, he usually spends as much time working the rope line: talking to people, hugging and kissing the women, holding the hands of the disabled, asking youngsters where they go to school and what they want to do, and hearing sad tales from veterans. A staff aide walks alongside, taking people's cameras from them, snapping a photo with Joe and then handing the camera back.
You could call it a virtuoso political performance, but it seems to energize the candidate. He has an instinct for connecting with people. Talking about the thousands of foreclosures this year, he talks not just about the numbers.
"We Democrats know foreclosure is more than a word," Biden said at a recent campaign stop. "It means turning to your son or daughter and saying, 'You've got to empty the bedroom, honey.' It means you can't come back to the neighborhood. You can't play in the same ball club."
At every stop, he always finds a personal bond. At a sun-splashed outdoor rally in Jeffersonville, Ind., he points across the river to Kentucky.
"The best thing that ever came out of Kentucky was my sister-in-law from Owensville," he said. "How she puts up with my brother, I don't know."
At fundraisers in Baltimore and Louisville, he points to former senators and recounts how they taught him everything he knows. Before a national Jewish group, he talks about his first trip to Israel. And in Greensburg, Pa., after being introduced by the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Dan Rooney, he remembered his first contact with the Rooney family.
It happened in 1972, when Biden's first wife and his daughter were killed in a car accident, and his critically injured two sons were in the hospital. Two days before Christmas, Biden remembered that he left the boys' room for a couple of hours to buy a Christmas tree for them. When he returned, each youngster had a football, signed by the Steelers — a gift arranged by Dan Rooney's father.
As he told the story, Biden suddenly found himself choking back tears and wiping his eyes. Later, he said he'd not expected to find himself transported back to that moment.
"It really embarrassed me that I became emotional in doing it. I will not try to do it again," he said.
Biden knows vice presidents usually have relatively little influence. As he puts it, in his job as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, presidents have to go through him. If he is vice president, the president can just run over him. So why did he take the job? After all, if his ticket wins, this will likely be his swan song. After two terms, he would be 74.
"No matter how successful what I push for may be in the Senate, the only way we're going to fundamentally change the country is through the White House," he said. "You need a president fundamentally changing the direction."
Going Up Against Palin
This week, Biden will be debating Palin. For the six-term senator, this might seem an easy task. But Biden has more than gaffes to worry about.
Debating a woman has particular perils. He has to worry about looking condescending or like a know-it-all. And because of his long experience, people expect him to do better. Still, he maintains that he isn't worried.
"I'm used to debating strong senators who happen to be women, so I'm not going to do anything different than I have before," he said.