Familiar Faces at Biden's Side

By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 21, 2007

FRANKLIN, N.H. -- One might think that a politician whose career was nearly ruined by plagiarism would avoid other people's words at all cost.

Yet there stood Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. before a group of small-town retirees, riffing on Seamus Heaney's poetry: "We got a shot to making 'hope and history rhyme.' " Followed by Plato: "The penalty good people pay for not being involved in politics is being governed by people worse than themselves." And then bons mots from the late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the poet Dylan Thomas and John F. Kennedy.

Watching impassively from the back of the room was Larry Rasky, a campaign aide who was present at a Democratic debate in Iowa 20 years ago when Biden famously left the impression that he was claiming British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock's life story as his own, and his presidential bid began to unravel.

Yet micromanagement has never been part of the Biden campaign style, not in 1987 and not this year, as the senator from Delaware makes one last White House run with the same mishmash of family members and old hands who have shared his presidential dreams for much of his long career. The polls could scarcely look worse, and Biden's quirky ticks -- like all those run-on paragraphs -- are more pronounced than ever. But inside the campaign, there is an unusual, if slightly eerie, calm.

"It's kind of like riding a bucking bronco," Rasky shrugged, trailing his unsupervised candidate through a small-town carnival, a C-SPAN camera recording Biden's every move. "If you want to be in complete control, this is not the place for you."

Few other 2008 candidates have such a long political résumé: 34 years in the Senate, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, former chairman of the Judiciary Committee. None carries Biden's baggage: the personal tragedies, the Kinnock humiliation, the long slog back to credibility -- and now the bitter prospect that his moment may have passed.

One reason Biden is able to cope with all this is that he has surrounded himself with an exceptionally loyal inner circle. He is running for president in the company of his best friends, and he actually seems to be enjoying himself. People such as Rasky are the glue that has held his disjointed career together, and their long history and easy repartee gives the Biden campaign a fun, old-school flavor.

"I'd make you walk, but I'm afraid I'd lose ya," Biden teased as Rasky, now carrying a few extra pounds, climbed into an overcrowded SUV between campaign events. Rasky took the only remaining seat, forcing Biden to share with another aide.

Biden's closest confidant is his sister Valerie Biden Owens, the linchpin of all his campaigns. She helped her brother overcome a childhood stutter and played surrogate mother to his young sons after the death of his first wife and daughter in a car accident.

Two other insiders, Ted Kaufman and John Marttila, worked on Biden's first Senate campaign in 1972. Others who came aboard during the 1970s and '80s, when Biden was a rising Democratic star, include Rasky, Mark Gitenstein, Ron Klain and Thomas E. Donilon.

David Wilhelm ran Iowa for Biden in the campaign for 1988, managed Bill Clinton's campaign in 1992 and served as Democratic National Committee chairman. Biden's decision to run this year seemed a more or less quixotic attempt to recapture that pre-Kinnock magic. But Wilhelm signed up without hesitation, choosing his first boss over Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), to whom he also has political ties.

"Joe Biden in a very real way gave me my first big chance, believed in me early," Wilhelm said. "Why are people loyal to him? I think there's a sense that he would be loyal back."

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