Running mate

Analysis

Maryland Democrats praise veteran Delaware senator Biden's strengths

Election 2008

August 24, 2008|By PAUL WEST | PAUL WEST,paul.west@baltsun.com

DENVER - In tapping Delaware's Joe Biden as his running mate, Barack Obama went for everything he is not: a garrulous, back-slapping, old-school pol with more Washington years under his belt than almost anyone in either party.

Biden is the first mid-Atlantic candidate on a national ticket since the early 1970s, an Irish-Catholic with working-class credibility and foreign policy expertise. He could enhance Obama's appeal in places, such as Maryland, where the Democrat is already strong.

"In Maryland, Senator Biden will be a critical ally and partner working with Senator Obama ... as we work to restore the health of the Chesapeake Bay and expand opportunity for our families," Gov. Martin O'Malley said yesterday.

But where it matters most - among the millions of undecided voters still unsure about Obama - the pick may have done more: It gave voters a glimpse into Obama's thinking, how he views the campaign and how he might govern as president. That may be more important, in the end, than all the votes Biden might attract.

Analysts and campaign strategists said Obama's decision conveyed several messages, not all of them what he might want voters to hear. They include:

* Obama is a conventional politician, despite his relative youth, his recent arrival on the national scene and the rock-star aura of his "change" candidacy. He made a safe choice that countered his own outsider image, rather than adding to it.

* He recognizes that Americans have concerns about his lack of experience, especially when it comes to national security. In Biden, he got the silver-haired gravitas that many, especially older voters, think Obama lacks. But he also highlighted his own weakness in this area.

* He needs to intensify his focus on the economic struggles of lower- and middle-income Americans. White working-class voters, many of whom strongly backed Hillary Clinton in the primaries, remain cool to Obama. His running mate's blue-collar background and regular-guy persona may help, but strategists said Obama must still convince these voters he understands their problems and can solve them.

* He has the self-confidence to select someone who challenged him for the nomination and made critical comments that are already providing attack-ad material for John McCain to use against him. Amid worries from his own supporters that Obama isn't tough enough, he's joining forces with someone eager to play the aggressor for the Democrats.

* He knows he's in a fight. The presidential contest is virtually dead even in national polling, and Biden's attack on McCain, right from the start yesterday, suggests the beginning of a new, more hard-edged phase of the campaign.

As his tightly controlled running-mate selection process showed, Obama insists on loyalty from advisers and gets it. Yet by selecting Biden, he sent a strong signal that he doesn't intend to surround himself with yes-men.

Several analysts made the point that Obama didn't follow the "new generation" model that Bill Clinton pioneered in 1992 when he selected Al Gore as his ticket mate. Instead, Obama wound up in the same place that candidate George W. Bush did eight years ago, when he turned to a Washington veteran in an effort to compensate for his own lack of national experience.

"Biden is like Dick Cheney, without some of the baggage," said Michigan pollster Ed Sarpolus. "Voters still don't know Obama, but this will demonstrate his judgment and what kind of team he is going to have. He didn't go with a woman, but he went with somebody who has credentials and is respected."

With both parties holding conventions during the next two weeks, Obama wants to use his to introduce himself to undecided voters.

He welcomed the Delaware senator to the ticket at a rally yesterday, the opening scene of a four-day miniseries, tailored for TV, which the Democrats will spin out in Denver.

"Joe Biden is that rare mix - for decades, he has brought change to Washington, but Washington hasn't changed him," Obama told a sun-drenched crowd in Springfield, Ill. He noted that Biden has continued to take Amtrak home to Wilmington every night.

"He is still that scrappy kid from Scranton who beat the odds; the dedicated family man and committed Catholic who knows every conductor on that Amtrak train to Wilmington," Obama said. "That's the kind of fighter who I want by my side in the months and years to come."

Biden followed with an enthusiastic display of attack skills. He ridiculed McCain's inability to say how many homes he owns, questioned his character and criticized his support for Bush's policies.

McCain "gave in to the right wing of his party and yielded to the very Swift boat politics that he once so deplored," said Biden.

Gesturing toward Obama, who sat onstage behind him, Biden called him the one candidate who has passed the test of "character and leadership" in the presidential contest.

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