STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The major party candidates for vice president are a study in contrasts. One is highly experienced, the other a relative novice. One is a new star, the other is a familiar face, and voice. This week NPR's Nina Totenberg profiles the campaigns of Governor Sarah Palin and Senator Joseph Biden, starting with the Democratic nominee.
NINA TOTENBERG: If Sarah Palin isn't saying much on the campaign trail, Joe Biden is, well, maybe saying too much, or at least not always thinking before he spouts off. He criticized an Obama ad even though he hadn't seen it. His remarks on a rope line sparked a firestorm of controversy in coal states. He asked a guy in a wheelchair to stand up, and then there was this remark made at a fundraiser last week and on camera to CBS.
Senator JOE BIDEN (Democrat, Delaware, Vice Presidential Nominee): When the stock market crashed, Franklin Roosevelt got on television and didn't just talk about the - you know, the princes of greed, he said, look, here's what happened...
TOTENBERG: Trouble is, Roosevelt wasn't president when the market crashed in 1929 and there was no TV. Biden, famous in the Senate for his long-windedness, 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.
Senator BIDEN: The real gaffes are McCain's gaffes. McCain's gaffes affect people's lives. So I mean, McCain going from at 9 o'clock in the morning deciding the economy was strong to 11 o'clock that it's in crisis kind of thing. I mean, I am who I am.
TOTENBERG: On the campaign trail, Biden doesn't get anything like the crowds that Sarah Palin attracts. His more typically are a few thousand at best. But his schedule is backbreaking. From early in the morning to late at night, he's speaking at public rallies and at fundraisers, where in one day last week he raised $1.8 million. In the two days we spent with him, he was in suburban Virginia, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Louisville, southern Indiana, western Pennsylvania and finally Rhode Island. His speeches are long but not boring. They're substantive and full of Democratic propaganda. Take his discussion of John McCain's health care proposal, in which he notes accurately that the McCain proposal would count employer health plans as income, meaning the average family policy would add $12,000 to taxable income.
Senator BIDEN: If you're making 40 a year, you'll pay taxes on 52 a year. If you're making 50 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.
TOTENBERG: 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. As Biden often observes, he's known John McCain for more than three decades. They've been pals since 1974, when the Navy assigned McCain to work as a staffer for the young Senator Biden. And Biden in our interview last week conceded that he's grown increasingly uncomfortable with what Biden calls McCain's personal attacks on Barack Obama.
Senator BIDEN: I try to keep telling myself that John really doesn't know what his campaign is doing in some of the scurrilous stuff that it's doing. I mean, this is not the John McCain that I knew. Now, the John McCain I knew in the economy I thought was wrong 25 years ago, you know. The part, the ambivalence I have is, you know, thinking, John, say it isn't so, John. I mean, this can't be your campaign.
TOTENBERG: Not that Biden has any difficulty attacking McCain's policies, for example, on the economy.
Senator BIDEN: Where was John a week ago? 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 very Wall Street titans he now calls the merchants of greed that he was shredding the regulations that were tying them down.
TOTENBERG: 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, hearing sad tales from vets. A staff aide walks alongside, taking people's cameras from them, snapping a photo with Joe and then handing the camera back.
Senator BIDEN: That's a high compliment, man.
Unidentified Man: And you're just as good.
Senator BIDEN: Well, we can in fact do this.
TOTENBERG: 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.
Senator BIDEN: We Democrats know foreclosure's more than a word. It means turning to your son or your daughter. And saying, you got to empty the bedroom, honey. It means you can't come back to the neighborhood. You can't play on that same ball club.
TOTENBERG: At every stop he always finds a personal bond. At a sun-splashed outdoor rally in Jeffersonville, Indiana, he pointed across the river to Kentucky.
Senator BIDEN: The best thing that ever came out of Kentucky was my sister-in-law from Owensboro. How she puts up with my brother, I don't know.
TOTENBERG: At fundraisers in Baltimore and Louisville, he points to former senators and tells how they taught him everything he knows. Before a national Jewish group, he talks about his first foreign trip, which was to Israel. And in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, after being introduced by the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Dan Rooney, he remembered his first contact with the Rooney family in 1972, when his 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 recalled, he left the boys' room for a couple of hours to buy a Christmas tree for them and 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.
Senator BIDEN: It really embarrassed me that I became emotional in doing it. I will not try to do it again.
TOTENBERG: 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's 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'd be 74.
Senator BIDEN: No matter how successful what I push for may be in the Senate, that the only way we're going to fundamentally change this country is from the White House. You need a president fundamentally changing the direction.
TOTENBERG: So this week, he'll be debating Sarah Palin. For the six-term senator and chairman of the foreign relations committee, 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, he isn't worried.
Senator BIDEN: I'm used to debating strong, really forceful women. I mean, you know, try debating Barbara Boxer, try debating Olympia Snowe, try debating Dianne Feinstein, try debating Barbara Mikulski. I mean, I' m used to really strong, smart senators who happen to be women. So I am not going to do anything different than I have before.
TOTENBERG: Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
INSKEEP: And tomorrow on Morning Edition, Nina profiles Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential nominee. This is NPR News.