— Vice President Biden steered clear of any potential gaffes Wednesday afternoon, appearing before an enthusiastic crowd of a few hundred people and trying to take the focus off recent comments that have riled Republicans and given presidential challenger Mitt Romney a new line of attack.

At the top of his speech, Biden said that he and President Obama believed that their rivals were “decent, honorable men,” attempting to soften some of the heated rhetoric that has defined the campaign over the past few days.

At a Tuesday event in Virginia, Biden said that Romney would roll back
regulations on the big banks and “unchain Wall Street.”

“They’re going to put y’all back in chains,” he said.

The speech set off a firestorm in Republican circles, and critics accused the vice president of using racially tinged rhetoric to inflame the Democratic base and hammer Romney. Biden made the comments to an audience in a predominantly African American community.

The vice president later said that he had simply used the wrong word. Rather than unchained, he said, he meant unshackled. That word has been used by some Republicans to describe their approach to financial and regulatory reform, and Biden has used it in previous stump speeches, according to aides.

Romney, who according to the most recent Gallup poll trails Obama on likability by 30 points, has seized on Biden’s comments. He and his allies suggest that Obama is running a divisive campaign devoid of hope and fueled by hate.

In Ohio on Tuesday night, Romney challenged Obama: “Mr. President, take your campaign of division and anger and hate back to Chicago, and let us get about rebuilding and reuniting America.”

At a Wednesday morning stop at a local restaurant, Biden ignored questions
from a reporter about Romney’s statements.

The vice president has been a frequent fixture on the stump, taking the traditional role of attack dog while courting the Democratic base. Last month at the National Council of La Raza’s annual conference, Biden linked Romney’s refusal to release additional tax returns to controversial immigration measures.

“He wants you to show your papers, but he won’t show us his,” he said in July.

Biden also spoke at the NAACP conference, as well as the National Association of Black Journalists convention.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Biden, with his Scranton, Pa., roots, was seen as offering balance to Obama’s ticket, a politician who could appeal to blue-collar whites in states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina and Virginia.

At the rally here, Biden was introduced as someone who understood his audience: “He gets us. He’s one of us,” his introducer said.

By contrast, Biden painted Romney as out of touch, citing the former Massachusetts governor’s bank accounts in Switzerland and Cayman Islands and his refusal to release additional tax returns.

Now, attention is turning to Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan — with some GOP strategists fretting that the 42-year-old Wisconsin congressman might not be ready for the glare of a national campaign. But it has been Biden who has seemed to stumble, reviving fears that he is gaffe-prone and muddling the president’s message.

In an NBC interview in May, Biden said that he was “absolutely comfortable” with same-sex marriage, even as Obama was saying that he was “evolving” on the issue. Days later, Obama’s evolution was complete, sped along by Biden’s off-the-cuff comments.

In the weeks before Election Day in 2008, Biden offered this prediction of the first weeks of an Obama presidency:

“Mark my words. Mark my words. It will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy. The world is looking. We’re about to elect a brilliant 47-year-old senator president of the United States of America,” Biden said at a Seattle fundraiser. “Remember I said it standing here, if you don’t remember anything else I said. Watch, we’re gonna have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy.”

Days later, at news conference in Richmond, Obama had to clean up after his running mate.

“You know, I think Joe sometimes engages in rhetorical flourishes,” Obama said.

At times, the Obama campaign has fully embraced Biden’s missteps. It rolled out a line of merchandise in June with the slogan “Health Reform Still a BFD,” a reference to Biden's hot mike remark on the passage of the Affordable Care Act.

On Wednesday, Biden acknowledged his reputation, suggesting that he is gaffe-prone and proud.

“I know I’m sometimes criticized for saying exactly what I mean,” he said. “It’s not going to change.”