Son of working-class Catholics, Biden may bolster Obama's weak spots

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 23, 2008 

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DENVER — When it came down to it, Barack Obama chose safe rather than bold, experience rather than change.

With his long record, Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., will help assure some voters nervous about Obama's lack of experience on foreign affairs, much as Dick Cheney did when he was chosen as the young George W. Bush's running mate.

One of the poorest members of the Senate, Biden also could help reach out to working class voters who've been cool to Obama in places such as Ohio and West Virginia.

And as a Roman Catholic, he could speak to that swing voting bloc in key states such as Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Overall, Biden looks familiar and safe as Obama's choice for vice president on the Democratic ticket. That could undercut Obama's message of bold new leadership.

But it also could help Obama look careful and deliberate at the very time Republicans want to cast him as a dangerous, radical neophyte.

"It's safe but not exciting," said Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida.

"It's a safe choice," added Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Minnesota.

A bold choice, a real Washington outsider such as Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine or Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, would have put a punctuation mark behind Obama's promise to change Washington and American politics.

Biden? "I don't think it helps the change message," Shier said.

That may not be all bad, especially at a time when Russian tanks are on the roll in Georgia, Pakistan is changing leaders, and Americans are again thinking about who will have their hand on the levers of power in national security and international affairs.

Obama needs to assure voters that he can handle a crisis, the same concern that former Democratic rival Hillary Clinton raised when she aired an ad asking who voters want in the White House when a crisis erupts at 3 am.

A recent Zogby poll found, for example, that voters prefer rival John McCain to handle those issues. Another found that the recent fighting between Russia and Georgia had voters leaning heavily toward McCain as more qualified to handle a resurgent Russia.

Obama also wants to attract more support from Roman Catholics, a key swing group closely divided between McCain and Obama.

Catholics make up about a one out of four voters nationwide, and a higher concentration in such political battleground states as Florida, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

And Biden — son of blue collar workers and a man whose net worth of less than $150,000 makes him one of the poorest members of the Senate — can speak to white, working class voters in a way that Obama might not.

While many analysts point out that Biden was born in Scranton, Pa., his real appeal in that battleground state actually comes from the television coverage of his career in Delaware.

Randall Miller, a professor of history at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, noted that Philadelphia TV covers Biden extensively and reaches voters not just in the city and its suburbs but into the Lehigh Valley. Baltimore TV also covers him, and reaches into central Pennsylvania.

"He is a very well known quantity here in Southeastern Pennsylvania, the mother lode of votes in the state," Miller said.

Beyond those niche appeals, Biden likely will do well in one of the key roles for a running mate — attacking the other ticket. Most presidential candidates want to take the high road themselves while their number two hits hard — a political good cop-bad cop act.

"He is a tough attack dog," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at the University of Southern California.

And in the one vice presidential debate, she said, "Biden can probably take apart anybody that McCain chooses, and do it with a stiletto and a smile."

Biden does carry some risks.

First, of course, is his image as an insider. Second is a tendency to off-the-cuff remarks that can appear impolitic, such as calling Obama the first "clean" black candidate for president or noting how Indians fill all the jobs at Dunkin' Donuts.

The Obama campaign could try to massage both flaws.

Already Saturday, for example, campaign aides were stressing how Biden rides the train home to Delaware from Washington every day to live with his family. "That's their way of stressing his blue collar roots and saying he's not part of the beltway crowd," Jeffe said.

The other, she suggested, would be to use his tendency for blunt, sometimes embarrassing comments to make him appear candid and honest.

"That could position him as a maverick," Jeffe said. "For the average voter, it could be a positive. It takes him out of the stereotype of the smooth, Washington insider."

One that will be harder to counter is the record of criticisms Biden leveled at Obama during the primaries. In one, for example, Biden called Obama too inexperienced, a clip the McCain camp rushed into TV commercials by mid-day Saturday.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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