Biden, Aides Focus On Tone of Debate

"The Early Show" takes a look at Democratic VP Nominee Joe Biden's political career and his family life. Thalia Assuras reports. Video by
By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 2, 2008

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. spent the past several days at a hotel in Wilmington, Del., preparing for tonight's vice presidential debate in St. Louis, surrounded by a clutch of top aides and Democratic strategists.

David Axelrod, Sen. Barack Obama's top adviser, was there, as were Ron Klain, a former top aide and debate adviser to Al Gore, and Valerie Biden Owens, Biden's sister and lead political adviser. The group peppered Biden with questions he might have to field tonight, reviewed tapes of his opponent's debate performances and tried to prepare for any contingency in the sole face-off between the vice presidential nominees.

But strategists in both parties say the famously garrulous and gaffe-prone Biden must be mindful of another factor: the fact that his opponent, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, is a woman.

Biden has spoken with longtime friends, including Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman to serve as a major party's vice presidential nominee, and Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), about how to approach the debate. And his advisers brought in a female politician in her 40s, Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm, to stand in for Palin in the practice sessions (although they emphasized that Granholm's strong debating skills led to her selection for the role).

Criticized by feminists after the Clarence Thomas hearings in 1991, in which he was accused of covering up Anita Hill's charges of sexual harassment against the then-Supreme Court nominee, Biden led the charge to pass the Violence Against Women Act in the Senate in 1994 and win reauthorization of the legislation six years later. And he has refused to go after Palin since she was named Sen. John McCain's running mate in late August, even as she has been largely shielded from the media and has stumbled in some of the few interviews she has granted.

Biden has said Palin will be "very, very tough," noting her effective speech at the Republican National Convention.

"I am not good at the one-line zingers," Biden said last month. "That's not my deal. If that's going to be the measure of how these debates are judged, I'm not going to do very well."

Palin, meanwhile, has projected confidence about the debate, mocking Biden at a campaign rally this week by saying, "I've been hearing about his Senate speeches since I was in, like, the second grade."

Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who advised Biden during his primary campaign, said, "I think he could really crush her, but he has to do that in a way that is likable among women."

Although Biden spokesman David Wade called the gender factor "overhyped," that hasn't prevented the nominee from seeking advice from an array of prominent women in politics. After their conversation, Biden sent Ferraro a DVD of one of Palin's gubernatorial debates, and Ferraro said she sent the senator a tape of her debate against then-Vice President George H.W. Bush in 1984.

In interviews, Boxer and Ferraro said they reminded Biden that he regularly debates against women in the Senate.

"I told him you debate women on the floor, in committee, you've debated Kay Bailey Hutchison [R-Tex.]. Treat Sarah Palin the same way," Boxer said.

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