Biden begins to shore up Obama's defensive line

His speech Wednesday night at the Democratic convention revealed his tasks: attack McCain's positions and appeal to blue-collar white voters.

By , Staff writer

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    Sen. Joseph Biden, No. 2 on the Democratic ticket, characterized the Bush administration's foreign policy as 'an abject failure.' He spoke Wednesday night at the party convention in Denver.
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Denver – In his acceptance speech Wednesday night, Sen. Joseph Biden showed the credentials that prompted his choice as No. 2 on the Democratic presidential ticket: a compelling personal story, rooted in family values; foreign policy gravitas; and a hard-edged political attack, delivered with grace.

With 36 years in the US Senate – all of them on the Foreign Relations Committee, which he currently chairs – Senator Biden brings a knowledge of foreign affairs and a network of international contacts unmatched on the Democratic side of the aisle.

In his choice of a running mate, Barack Obama "hit it out of the park," said former President Bill Clinton in his address to the convention before Biden's prime-time speech. "With Joe Biden's experience and wisdom, supporting Barack Obama's proven understanding, insight, and good instincts, America will have the national security leadership we need," he added.

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Early polls signal that Biden's addition to the ticket has yet to produce a bounce, but it's early yet. (Most bounces don't come until after a party convention, and this one ends Thursday night.) But Democrats in Denver are counting on "Lunch Pail Joe" to reassure key elements of their party's base – and to take the fight to the Republicans.

For many party activists, what's been missing in the Obama campaign to date is a strong defensive line. They're looking to Biden, known in the Senate for a sharp tongue, to provide it. On Wednesday, he tried to walk the line of knocking down McCain's positions without flattening the character of the GOP's presumptive nominee himself.

"John McCain is my friend. We've known each other for three decades. We've traveled the world together. And the personal courage and heroism John demonstrated still amaze me," Biden said. "But I profoundly disagree with the direction that John wants to take the country."

What's wrong with McCain's views? He thinks the nation has made great economic progress, Biden said. "I think it's been abysmal." Though claiming a reputation as a maverick, "John sided with President Bush 95 percent of the time," he said. Millions of jobs have left America's shore, he asserted, but "McCain supports tax breaks for corporations that send them." And so on.

The tough talk played well in the Pepsi Center, as the crowd joined Biden's refrain after each attack: "That's not change; that's more of the same."

"We're not going to let what happened in the past, such as 'swift-boating' (a reference to unanswered attacks on John Kerry's war record in the 2004 presidential campaign), happen to this team," says Gilberto Hinojosa, a lawyer and delegate from Brownsville, Texas. "Joe Biden is a guy who's going to roll up his sleeves and throw punches when they need to be thrown."

Biden drew on his own foreign policy experience to attack the "Bush-McCain" foreign policy. He slammed the administration for failing to face "the biggest forces shaping this century," such as the emergence of Russia, China, and India as great powers; the spread of lethal weapons; the shortage of secure supplies of energy, food, and water; the challenge of climate change; and the resurgence of fundamentalism in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"I've been on the ground in Georgia, Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, and I can tell you in no uncertain terms: This administration's policy has been an abject failure. America cannot afford four more years of this," he said.

The capacity crowd in Denver warmed to the tone of the attack, but applause fell off considerably when Biden proposed anything like more US involvement overseas. The line "We will hold Russia accountable for its actions, and we'll help the people of Georgia rebuild" sent the decibel level in the Pepsi Center markedly south.

Delegates also reacted coolly to this line of attack: "Should we trust John McCain's judgment when he said only three years ago, 'Afghanistan, we don't read about it anymore because it's succeeded'? Or should we trust Barack Obama, who more than a year ago called for sending two additional combat brigades to Afghanistan?" At the mention of deployment of additional US troops, the hall nearly went silent.

Democratic strategists are also looking to Biden to help the ticket shore up support among so-called Reagan Democrats – white working-class men who have doubts about Obama. Born in Scranton, Pa., Biden refers often to the Catholic, working-class neighborhoods of his youth and the lessons they taught.

"Barack Obama and I took very different journeys to this destination, but we share a common story," Biden said. "Mine began in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and then Wilmington, Delaware, with a dad who fell on hard times but who always told me: 'Champ, when you get knocked down, get up.' "

Recent polling by Democracy Corps signals that Obama is winning about 75 to 80 percent of voters in most conservative Democratic subgroups, well below the 85 percent and higher that Senator Kerry achieved in 2006. "He is underperforming Kerry by a net of 12 [percentage] points among white noncollege Democrats and 9 points among white Democratic men," concludes an Aug. 4 report, "The New Electorate." If Obama can bring his support closer to historic Democratic levels, "big gains are possible."

"This entire [Democratic] convention has been devoted to winning over whites over 50, and that's why Biden was picked," said Stan Greenberg after a lunch for reporters sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor on Wednesday. "I think Biden will have an effect on Obama. I think Obama will find a more comfortable language for doing this. It's hard for him, because he's just not an instinctive populist ... he doesn't look angry," he added.

Doubts about Obama among this segment of the Democratic base could be decisive in the 2008 vote, says independent political analyst Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report.

"Whether you want to call it whites over 50 or blue-collar whites or older blue-collar whites, we're talking about one group, and either he connects with them or he doesn't," he says. "If he clears the hurdle, he can win big. If he doesn't, we're looking at a photo finish."

Several delegates interviewed in the convention hall Wednesday night said Biden could help Obama reach out to these voters.

"Barack Obama's style and essence did not go over well with blue-collar, Caucasian Democratic voters because he speaks a beautiful English and has lofty lexicon. They think he's just not one of them. He's a smart guy who went to college. Some of it may be race," says Dr. Elan Simckes, a Democratic delegate from St. Louis. "With Biden on the ticket, together they can work off each other."

Finally, Democrats are counting on Biden's personal story to attract support to the ticket. Biden describes his life growing up in middle-class neighborhoods of Scranton and Wilmington as living the American dream. Biden says he learned life by watching his father, Joseph Biden Sr., get up every morning and go to a job he never liked.

Biden's own life includes unexpected victories, such as the upset win in 1972 that made him one of the youngest ever to serve in the US Senate, and shattering losses, such as the death of his first wife and daughter in a traffic accident later that year. He began a lifelong practice of returning home every night from the Senate to Wilmington to be with his two surviving sons.

"Five years later," said his son, Beau Biden, "we married my mom, Jill. They together rebuilt our family." Beau Biden, Delaware attorney general, added during his introduction of his father: "And 36 years later, he still makes that trip. So even though Dad worked in Washington, he's never been part of Washington. He always sounded like the kid from Scranton, Pennsylvania, he is."

Biden's first presidential run in 1987 collapsed over charges of plagiarism, just as it was gaining traction. Biden says he did not address the charges quickly enough at the time. "Failure at some point in everyone's life is inevitable, but giving up is unforgivable," he said Wednesday night.

In a surprise appearance, Obama joined Biden and his family on the stage at the Pepsi Center after the acceptance speech. "I love Joe Biden, and America will too," he said.

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