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.
But other observers on both sides say Biden must take into account how undecided female voters will view his approach to Palin. In her 1984 debate, Ferraro cast her opponent as sexist.
"I almost resent, Vice President Bush, your patronizing attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy," she said.
Ferraro, who was a strong backer of Clinton during the Democratic primaries but says she will vote for Obama in November, said Obama was "arrogant and sexist" when he called Clinton "likable enough" during a debate in New Hampshire this year.
"Joe Biden wouldn't do that," Ferraro said. "He's too experienced."
Former Republican congressman Rick Lazio, who drew rebukes for walking over to Clinton and demanding that she sign a pledge not to accept "soft money" during their 2000 New York Senate debate, said, "A man needs to consider whether his language or demeanor suggest a lack of respect."
"On substance, [the pledge] was a fair point," Lazio wrote in an e-mail. "But in retrospect approaching her podium with a written pledge to be signed was a mistake. I should have been more sensitive to how the audience, particularly but not exclusively women, would view this."
Former Maryland governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said of facing a female candidate, "Of course it changes the dynamics -- it just does." Ehrlich was criticized for repeatedly referring to then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend as "ma'am" in a series of debates in 2002. Ehrlich said, "It can work all sorts of ways. You have to be careful of your language; Biden has to be careful of being too aggressive."
Others said gender is overstated as a factor in tonight's debate, particularly as the focus has shifted to whether Palin's experience adequately prepares her for the vice presidency. "I have debated men, I have debated women -- you prepare the same way," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.).
Lake cited Biden's performances in the primary debates as evidence that he would avoid such mistakes against Palin and noted that he had debated Clinton roughly a dozen times. "He gets into trouble when he has time to expand," Lake said, adding that debates forced Biden to offer more concise and organized responses.
But those previous debates could also pose a challenge for Biden. In one of the debates that included Obama and Biden, the Delaware senator questioned whether Obama was ready to be president. Biden also criticized the Illinois senator's position that he would meet with leaders of hostile nations such as Iran without conditions.
In his debate against Palin, Biden aides said, the Delaware senator will defend Obama, attack McCain and say little about Palin. "The challenge is to make the case for Barack Obama and prosecute the case against John McCain," Wade said. "Voters aren't tuning in for a vice presidential food fight."
Alex Vogel, a Republican strategist who was top aide to former Senate majority leader Bill Frist, agreed with that strategy but said it might be difficult for Biden to implement.
"It's okay for him to be boring," Vogel said. But he added: "Biden is a one-man gaffe machine; he needs not to make one in this debate, he needs to be not mean, he needs not to talk down to her."