Democrats See the Pros and Cons of Letting Biden Be Biden

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Introducing Sen. Barack Obama at a rally in Detroit on Sunday, his running mate did not hold back.

"John McCain said he'd follow Osama bin Laden to the gates of hell," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. "Well, let me tell you something: President Barack Obama will follow him to where he lives and then send him to hell."

Biden's latest ad-lib drew laughter and cheers from the crowd, but there has been a downside to the Democratic vice presidential nominee's freewheeling style: a string of comments that either don't reflect campaign positions or misstate basic facts.

Unlike his Republican counterpart, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Biden has not been shy about talking to reporters, but comments he has made since Obama chose him last month have presented Democrats with their own problems and revived the longtime senator's reputation for gaffes.

In an interview with CBS News that aired last week, Biden described how Franklin D. Roosevelt had appeared before the country on television in 1929 to explain the stock market crash. But Herbert Hoover was president in 1929, and televisions sets did not start appearing in American homes until a decade later.

In that same interview, asked about an Obama campaign commercial that mocked Sen. John McCain's lack of computer skills, Biden called the ad "terrible." A few hours later, after McCain's campaign highlighted the remark in several news releases, Obama aides put out a statement under Biden's name in which the senator from Delaware said he had not personally seen the commercial and did not have any concerns once he watched it.

The next day, confronted with a interview in which Biden had said he opposed the bailout of the insurance company American International Group, a move that Obama supported, the Democratic nominee said that "I think Joe should have waited" before commenting.

And Obama aides spent much of the week defending the candidate's backing of the construction of "clean coal" plants, after a video surfaced on the Internet that showed Biden at a campaign event saying he opposed clean coal. The coal industry is a major employer in Ohio and Pennsylvania, two key swing states where Biden is doing much of his campaigning, and Obama has pledged support for coal plants that emit less carbon dioxide than traditional plants.

The McCain campaign has jumped on the remarks to attack Obama, and the Republican National Committee has started a "Joe Biden Gaffe Clock" that includes dates and video of the senator's comments, which also have included repeated references to brigades of soldiers as "battalions."

"If this race is close, any mistake can be really exploited," said Dan Bartlett, a former top adviser to President Bush who is supporting McCain. "He has this unique capability for someone who is so smart on the issues making these mistakes."

David Wade, Biden's spokesman, defended his boss's "straight talk," adding: "Unlike other campaigns that sequester running mates, we'll proudly continue to unleash Joe Biden to be Joe Biden."

Obama himself has defended Biden, telling NBC last week, "I am very proud of the choice that I made."

And Dan Pfeiffer, Obama's communications director, rejected any suggestion that Biden's role in the campaign would be reduced or changed, calling him a "huge asset" who was "in the battleground states, dominating the media coverage."

Some Democrats have suggested -- as Biden himself did recently -- that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton would have been a better choice as Obama's running mate, but on the whole the party appears satisfied with him.

Kiki McLean, who was an adviser on Clinton's campaign and served on the staff of Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) when he was the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2000, said Biden's gaffes were "very human moments."

"He's very on-message on foreign policy and the economy," she said.

Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who advised the senator from Delaware during his own primary campaign, called the controversial remarks "Biden being Biden." Lake said focus groups of non-college-educated white voters, a group that has been a weak point for Obama, suggest Biden is helping sell Obama to skeptical audiences despite his occasional gaffes.

Biden has long been known for speaking for too long and making occasionally odd remarks, such as when he declared Obama "the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy" when Biden launched his White House bid in early 2007. A few months earlier he had spoken of the prevalence of Indian accents in Dunkin' Donuts and 7-Eleven stores.

Initially hailed by the party as someone who would add experience as well as appeal to key voting groups such as Catholics, Biden has drawn little attention in recent weeks, crowded out of the media spotlight first by Palin and now by the financial meltdown.

Biden often travels with fewer than a dozen reporters, and even his aggressive attacks on McCain have generated little attention in national news, although Obama aides point out he often makes the front pages of local newspapers in the cities he visits. At the same time, many of those papers ran stories about his coal comments this week as well.

Bartlett, who is not formally involved with the McCain campaign, described Biden as "a rhetorical train wreck." He added: "Every utterance matters. But when he was announced I considered him to be a very good pick, and I haven't really changed my opinion."

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