Biden looks like a yacht owner, acts like a man of the people

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 18, 2008 

AKRON, Ohio — Joe Biden's look said "yacht owner": navy blazer with handkerchief, crisp oxford shirt, pressed khakis, silver hair.

But as he toured Ohio this week he talked like a high school buddy, loudly and casually. He invaded personal space with gusto, squeezing arms and shoulders, handing out hugs, hamming it up with strangers as if they were old friends.

"I hope you're all supposed to be here, because you're on television!" he said upon entering Wilson's, a diner in Findlay.

He told a 17-year-old girl who was standing near a carousel in Mansfield, "Remember, no boys till you're 30," then repeated for emphasis, "30."

On his two-day bus tour, Biden, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, was looking to wrest some of the spotlight back from Sarah Palin, Republican John McCain's running mate, who's had a monopoly on vice-presidential buzz lately.

Biden, 65, talked to people in a way that Obama, 47, for all his inspirational speechmaking skills, can't or won't. For some, it was what they needed to hear.

"That was an excellent speech!" said John Mann, 71, a retired shop foreman and undecided voter, leaving a Biden rally Wednesday in Maumee, near Toledo. "I have to admit, on Obama's speeches, I've listened to them but they didn't register."

Mann said that the Delaware senator strengthened Obama's appeal because "he brings that experience."

Biden spoke of his 35 years in the Senate and talked knowledgably about the economy and foreign policy. He played up his Irish Roman Catholic, working-class background, speaking sarcastically of McCain's "conversion" or "epiphany" on issues such as regulating Wall Street.

At the College of Wooster, Biden thanked students for waiting in line to see him but added, "I think you're all damn fools for doing it" rather than going out to a campus pub. Biden himself doesn't drink.

Even on a more serious topic, restoring U.S. standing with nations who opposed President Bush's Iraq war, Biden cracked wise, saying, "I'm not naive. I'm not new. And I hope I'm not stupid."

Addressing more than 100 laborers in a union hall in Akron on Thursday, Biden unabashedly declared his support for unions. He said that organized labor was "the reason there is a middle class."

He recalled how in Delaware, union members "stuck up for my son" in his race for attorney general after late-breaking Republican attacks and helped him prevail.

Biden recalled an expression of his late father: "You help me, I remember it. You help my kid, I never forget it."

"I owe you," he told the labor crowd. "That has nothing to do with Obama" or the presidency, he said. "It has everything to do with family. Everything good that's happened to me — I'm not joking about this . . . has started in labor union halls."

He accused McCain and Palin of hiding from news media scrutiny: "When's the last time John's had a press conference?"

The Democrat said he'd been told that he'd done 68 to 70 interviews as Obama's running mate, and he was asked what he thought of Palin. " 'When she does three (major interviews) I'll let you know.' I don't know!"

Biden is embraced by voters in large swaths of Pennsylvania and Florida, who know him as a Scranton, Pa., native, and a longtime advocate for Israel.

In other battleground states, however, including Ohio, Biden has more ground to cover. In a Quinnipiac Poll of likely Ohio voters taken in early September, 18 percent said Biden made them more likely to vote for Obama, but 41 percent still hadn't heard enough about him to have opinions. That made him a bigger unknown than newcomer Palin, thanks to the flood of publicity she's gotten the past few weeks.

On his bus tour, Biden digressed regularly from his talking points, including one convoluted tangent in Maumee about how all men should have brothers-in-law with pickups to lend and brothers with beach houses they were willing to share.

At the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, he confided to the audience that in younger years he'd dreamed of induction, and the crowd chuckled sympathetically.

At stop after stop, Biden ripped into McCain and his party with more rage than Obama usually summons. Biden accused them of "a flat lie" in portraying Obama as wanting to raise middle-class taxes. "If I sound angry it's because I am angry!" Biden also said, twice in one sentence choosing a word that the Illinois senator doesn't typically utter.

Dozens of voters who were interviewed at Biden events this week already were committed to Obama, and for the most part they said Biden wasn't a deciding factor for them. Still, many said they thought he strengthened the ticket.

"He's experienced, and it's a good match for Obama's weaknesses," said Don Hengen, 60, a retired warehouse supervisor.

Biden's personality isn't for everyone, however.

One McCain supporter who wouldn't give his name watched Biden make the rounds at the diner in Findlay and said the senator struck him as "arrogant and self-centered." But the man also said he wouldn't have supported Obama regardless of his running mate.

Plenty of voters remain undecided, such as Mike Buck, 55, the manager of a Toledo-area car service. He said he was considering voting for McCain despite his preference for a Democrat.

"I don't think Obama's got the experience, and I don't know anything about this Biden," he said.

Still, in the final six weeks of the race, Buck said, Biden has at least as much potential as Obama to convince him otherwise.

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