Biden, in Ohio, Sees Hurdles Ahead

Candidate Joseph R. Biden Jr. is cheered in Canton, Ohio, this week.
Candidate Joseph R. Biden Jr. is cheered in Canton, Ohio, this week. (By Michael S. Balash -- Canton Repository Via Ap)
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By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 20, 2008

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio -- Four weeks ago, when Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) was tapped as Sen. Barack Obama's running mate, gleeful Democrats saw the Catholic native of Scranton, Pa., as part of the solution to Obama's problem attracting support from white working-class voters.

But at the end of a two-day bus trip through Ohio this week, Biden acknowledged in an interview that he and others still have more work to do in selling Obama to those voters before Election Day.

He said a lack of familiarity with Obama and false rumors about him were still hampering the Democratic ticket, particularly the untrue e-mail chains suggesting that Obama is a Muslim. The Democratic presidential nominee is a Christian.

"Everybody likes him, they get out there and they look and they go, 'I like him a lot, but is this guy a Muslim? Does he go to a madrassa?' " Biden said. "People like him, but they want to be reassured [that] some of the malarkey, the negative stuff they hear about him, is just not true."

But, he added, "we're still winning, we're still doing well."

Biden said what he described as "Karl Rove tactics" by Republicans have hurt Obama. "I think some of the stuff they're trying to say is less racial. What they're trying to say is, this guy is exotic, this guy isn't like you, like the whole thing that he is a celebrity, he is a rock star," he said.

Similar allegations by Obama in Missouri last month drew an angry response from the McCain camp, which accused the Democrat of having "played the race card, and [playing] it from the bottom of the deck."

Asked to elaborate on the challenge Obama faces from working-class voters, Biden told of an elderly woman at a Philadelphia area diner, who showed him an e-mail on her mobile phone repeating the charge that Obama is a Muslim.

"She said, 'Senator, I love you, I was going to vote for you, and I thought I liked Barack, but I can't do it,' " Biden said. "And I said, 'Why not?' She said, 'Well, look,' and she shows me an e-mail. She says, 'He's a radical Muslim,' and I said, 'Why would you say that?'

"She said, 'Everybody tells me that.' And I said, 'I promise you that's not true,' and she said, 'What do I do?' And I said, 'Well, vote for me.' And she looked at me and said, 'Does that mean I have to vote for him, too?' "

More campaigning by both Obama and his supporters, particularly in small towns in Ohio and Pennsylvania, would be crucial to turning that around, Biden suggested, because "it's about people getting comfortable. He's new to them, they're just getting introduced to him."

Biden said "forms of validation" would also be important for Obama -- for example, the vouching for him by former president Bill Clinton.

Biden has in many ways become Obama's emissary to Democrats who backed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) in the primaries and have not yet come around to the man who defeated her.

Obama's electoral strategy is also focused on winning states in the West, such as Nevada and New Mexico, while Biden's campaign travel has been in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan -- swing states where the campaign thinks he will connect with undecided voters, particularly seniors and Catholics.

On his Ohio tour, Biden visited Democratic-leaning towns such as Akron and Youngstown, where Hillary Clinton easily defeated Obama in primary voting, as well as more conservative towns, such as Findlay.

Whether Biden can make a big difference is an open question. He drew enthusiastic crowds of several hundred, including many strong Obama backers, in northern Ohio. But 41 percent of Ohioans said in a recent poll by Quinnipiac University that they hadn't heard enough about Biden to form an opinion on him. Even in Pennsylvania, which neighbors Biden's home state of Delaware, a quarter of poll respondents said they didn't know much about him.

But Biden is optimistic he will be able to reach swing-state voters. "I think that they can figure out that I really do kind of get it," he said Thursday night. "I kind of do come from where they come from."

On the stump, Biden has shifted his tone from praising Obama as a "regular guy" to a more negative focus on McCain, casting his candidacy as the third term of President Bush.

But on his campaign bus as the tour of Ohio ended, he acknowledged McCain's potential appeal.

"They look at Barack and they say, 'I know he is the one who is most likely to create the greatest change.' They say, 'I know McCain is not going to do much, but I know kind of where he [McCain] is,' " Biden said. "They think he might do what Bush did better. I'm not trying to make the case he is Bush's clone, but I think they think that there's not likely to be a very wide departure.

"I think people are deciding whether they believe any of it matters," Biden said. "They're deciding whether or not they're going to take a chance on being incremental or they're going to take a chance on, 'Okay, I'm going to bet, man. We need a big change.' "

He added that an electorate that wants a big change will vote for Obama, but he predicted a very close race.

"I think people are really mulling this one over; I don't think we're going to know in the middle of October," he said. "I've never seen as many people interested, and I've never seen as many people as fluid, like, 'I'm just not sure.' "

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