Biden bids for blue-collar voters below the media radar

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 2, 2008 

LIMA, Ohio — Few Democrats venture into this Republican stronghold in northwest Ohio, where President Bush swamped John Kerry 2-1 four years ago.

But on this crisp, sunny autumn weekend, in the final lap before Election Day, Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden continued to press his below-the-radar guerilla strikes into enemy territory.

He walked into the Kewpee Hamburger parlor Halloween night in Lima, where local factories probably make more M-1 tanks and Ford V-6 engines than there are Democrats.

The six-term senator from Delaware shook hands with diners, ordered malts and burgers for the campaign bus crowd and said, "We think we can compete everywhere. And as you can see, we're going everywhere."

Williamsport, Pa. Virginia Beach, Va. Marion, Ohio. All are Republican redoubts in key states, and all are recent Biden destinations.

"We're in places that have never seen a Democratic candidate before," said Isaac Baker, a spokesman for the Obama campaign in the Buckeye State.

Biden patrols the underbelly of the presidential battlegrounds. Democrats believe the economic crisis has made these areas ripe for political reversals. And if they can at least cut the GOP margin on once-safe turf, well, Indiana, which hasn't backed a Democrat for president in more than four decades, is now basically tied.

In Ohio, a source of endless frustration for Democrats in the last two presidential elections, the Obama-Biden ticket is up by 4.2 points, according to an average of recent polls by RealClearPolitics.com.

What was true for Bill Clinton in 1992 is truer than ever for Barack Obama in 2008. It's the economy, stupid. Ohio unemployment is over 7 percent. It's over six in the political crucibles of Missouri and Florida. Indiana, too.

"People are worried," said Penny Welenken, a 55-year-old school bus driver in Lima. "My friend lost her home. People don't care about calling each other names."

Biden is the link to key groups in the Democratic patchwork: blue collar voters, seniors and Catholics. Sen. Hillary Clinton won them in the primaries, Obama needs them now, and Biden's job is to vouch that as president, Obama won't forget them.

He wears his blue collar values on his sleeve, and it's always a well-tailored one. On a sunny day, the power of the gleam from his silvery hair and white teeth should be part of Obama's energy plan.

The Bruce Springsteen's song, "The Rising," booms over the sound system when his wife, Jill, introduces him. The high school gyms are sometimes only half full.

He apologized for being slightly tardy to a rally at a blocked off intersection in downtown Evansville, Ind., on Saturday morning. His wife had met a nun while jogging earlier and reminded him of a special mass that morning. Biden said his 91-year-old mother would be sure to call him later to ask how it had gone. Nifty move: appealing to both seniors and Catholics in one little anecdote.

His speeches, more like rambling chats, are full of "Look, folks..." and 'Man!" He'll drop his voice to a low confidential whisper, then without warning make it sound like a megaphone.

"I love when they turn to each other," he says of Republican nominee John McCain and running mate Sarah Palin, "and say, 'Hey Maverick!' Folks, you can't call yourself a maverick, if all you've been for eight years IS A SIDEKICK!"

The crowds applaud the values Biden says he learned growing up in hardscrabble Scranton, Pa., and Delaware in a family that "never doubted the American dream."

He lovingly recalls his father, "a graceful, high school educated guy" who had to move away to look for work, but who always told him, "Champ, when you get knocked down, get up."

"He's an inspirational guy," said Dick Ward, a retiree from Kettering, Ohio, near Dayton. "He could have grown up in this neighborhood."

Now, in the twilight of the campaign, the Republican attacks have grown more cutting.

"They have decided to take the low road to the highest office in the land," Biden told an outdoor rally at Bowling Green State University on Saturday night.

But when one audience began to "boo" at the mention of Palin, Biden quickly put up his hand.

"No. She's alright. She's a fine person." He says the same of Bush. Of McCain, he laments that his "good friend" has gone negative and hopes he'll reverse course and "ends this campaign with his strength."

Biden's exploits go largely unrecorded beyond the local media, which is just fine with the campaign. That's normally the case with vice presidential candidates, though not so with Palin, who's become a Republican star.

But Biden, who's been on the national scene for more than three decades, has run for president twice, authored landmark bills on crime, and is a respected voice on foreign affairs, seems to draw national notice only when his mouth gets low on brake fluid.

The Obama camp wanted his foreign policy stature and working class vibe. But they had to accept a guy who often does Descartes one better: I think therefore I am - and I'm going to tell you all about it.

As when he recently warned a private gathering of high-dollar donors that if Obama is elected, "Watch. We're going to have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy."

The McCain campaign couldn't believe its good fortune — Obama's own running mate seemed to be making the Republican case that his inexperience invited trouble.

"Rhetorical flourishes," Obama said, dismissing all the fuss. But it did hurt. Biden denied that he has since been muzzled and told to stick to the script.

"No one said anything to me about it," he said, in a rare exchange with his press corps at Kewpee, as his hamburgers sizzled on the grill.

His only focus was on Tuesday.

"Look, I'm a politician who has run scared every single election," Biden said. "I have never, never, before the polls close, said, 'Man! This is in the bag.'"

But his hamburgers were. The would-be vice president then shook a few more hands, and headed into the night. Tuesday and more states beckoned.

email:dgoldstein(at)mcclatchydc.com

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McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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