By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 1, 2008
TOLEDO, Aug. 31 -- Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. was warming up a crowd at a town hall meeting Sunday morning when a woman shouted, "You are gorgeous!"
"I haven't heard that in a long, long, long time," responded Barack Obama's new running mate. "And hanging around this lean, young-looking guy is making me feel pretty old, you know what I mean?"
The audience cracked up, and so did Obama. When it was his turn to speak, a woman called out for Biden and Obama quipped, "See, she thinks you're gorgeous, too, Joe."
Obama picked Biden as his running mate in part because his colleague from Delaware brings foreign policy heft and a working-class Catholic pedigree to the Democratic ticket. But as the two barnstormed through the Rust Belt on their first campaign swing together over the holiday weekend, it was clear that they also possessed a more elusive political quality: chemistry.
"Marriages of political necessity are often really awkward," said senior Obama aide Linda Douglass. But she said even Obama has been surprised at how quickly he and Biden have clicked on the campaign trail. "There's lots of laughing and collaboration and consultation," she said. "He's just this cheerful presence in the group."
Their rapport stands in contrast to the Democratic ticket in 2004, when Sens. John F. Kerry and John Edwards barely knew each other and grew to dislike one another. Edwards wasn't as tough on President Bush as Kerry wanted him to be, and Kerry campaign aides complained about prima-donna-type demands from Edwards, who, in turn, criticized campaign strategy.
On the Republican side this year, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) met Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin once before last week, when she was offered the job. The two have campaigned together since Friday, and McCain called her "a partner and a soul mate" in an interview on "Fox News Sunday."
Biden and Obama have served together on the Foreign Relations Committee since Obama was elected to the Senate in 2004, and they have always had a friendly relationship, with Biden -- the chairman -- playing mentor.
Although they were rivals for their party's nomination this year, Biden has both privately and publicly praised Obama, and he provided help behind the scenes to smooth relations with the Clintons and to guide Obama on foreign policy, sources close to both senators said.
Senior Biden aide Antony Blinken joined Obama at the start of his trip to Iraq and Afghanistan in July. He later told Biden how impressed he was with Obama's grasp of the region and with his rapport with U.S. troops, aides to both said.
Senior Obama advisers said Biden was always a top choice for the No. 2 slot, but they weren't sure how the veteran committee chairman would adapt to a subordinate role. Campaign manager David Plouffe said Biden reassured Obama staffers in their first meeting, saying: "I work for you guys. I'm just part of the team
So far, Biden's role has been part father figure and part foil. He picks loose threads off Obama's jacket and warms up crowds with wisecracks and aphorisms. On Saturday morning, he and his wife, Jill, had French toast for breakfast with the Obamas. His grandkids hit it off with Obama's daughters and have already had one sleepover. At every event, he and Obama embrace and backslap each other, like a pair of long-lost brothers.
"I'm really pleased with Joe Biden," Obama said as the tour was getting started on Friday. "You know, our families have just really hit it off."
Biden also plays the role of validater, translating Obama's life story and values to the white, blue-collar Democrats he has struggled to attract. Describing his hard upbringing to the Toledo crowd, Biden said of Obama, "One of the things Barack and I share in common: I said I was raised by a dad who had to leave to go find work -- Barack was raised by a single mom who worked and went to school. We come from the same kind of stock you all come from."
Biden's new role gives him a chance at redemption after two failed presidential bids. Although widely respected within his party and once considered an Obama-like rising star, he has never clicked as a national candidate. And despite 36 years in the Senate, he remains prone to verbal gaffes and to talking too long.
But those attributes can come off as more endearing than exasperating alongside Obama, who is so polished that he borders on boring. At the start of the Toledo event, the Democratic nominee worked the rope line with his usual surgical precision and reached the podium far ahead of Biden, who was still posing for pictures with police officers and embracing elderly women.
He still has some rough edges. During a "60 Minutes" interview that aired last night, host Steve Kroft asked Biden about the plagiarism controversy that drove him out of the presidential race in 1988. The senator gave a halting response, mangling his explanation that he had forgotten to attribute quotes to British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock during a debate, although he had repeatedly credited Kinnock in previous references.
"I was arrogant. I didn't think I had to prepare," Biden responded. "But I think that I have a record that people can go back and examine and decide whether or not I mean what I say -- no matter how I say it."
As Biden meandered, Obama jumped in: "I like who he is. And I think the American people will."
One change in Biden since his ascent is his willingness to talk about the deaths of his first wife, Neilia, and their baby daughter, Naomi, in a traffic accident weeks after he won his first Senate race in 1972. Earlier this year, when Iowa voters would ask him about the accident, Biden would say that to talk about it was to relive it.
Now he accepts it as part of his appeal. On Friday night, when Obama and Biden met Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin in Pittsburgh, Biden recounted how "Old Mr. Rooney" -- Steelers owner Dan Rooney -- dispatched some players from his championship team to the hospital room in Wilmington where Biden's two toddler sons, Beau and Hunter, were recovering from the accident. They brought the boys an autographed football as a Christmas present.
"And I have been a Steelers fan since that day," Biden told Tomlin.
"Not much has changed," Tomlin responded.
After attending the funeral Saturday of Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio), Biden recalled another harrowing moment in his life, when he suffered two brain aneurysms within months of dropping out of the 1988 race. Tubbs Jones had died suddenly of the same condition.
"When mine burst, fortunately as described to me by the neurosurgeons, it ricocheted off my skull instead of into my brain," Biden explained. "Had it been the other way around, I would be where she is."