When presidential contenders pick their running mates, the choice is almost always a reflection of their own political weaknesses. And so it was with Barack Obama's selection of fellow Senator Joe Biden. More than Biden's obvious international expertise as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, what got Biden the job was his ability to connect with voters that Obama himself has had trouble winning over and his willingness to throw a punch.
While Biden is not a dazzling pick, the party elders who are beginning to gather for their nominating convention in Denver consider him a solid one. Andy Stern, president of the two-million member Service Employees International Union, says Biden could help enormously in reaching "the people in our union who are skeptical about Barack Obama." Stern recalls that when Biden took up the union's challenge to work a day with one of its members in Iowa last year, the Delaware Senator asked to do it with a school custodian and surprised the head building engineer at a Cedar Rapids, Iowa, middle school by actually knowing how to use a wrench.
Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell said Biden, with his working class roots and a 35-year Senate record, can appeal to two groups of voters with whom Obama has had difficulty closing the sale: blue-collar workers and suburban female voters, whom Obama strategists hope will remember the fights Biden waged on the Senate Judiciary Committee against conservative judicial nominees and for legislation such as the bill that became the 1994 Violence Against Women Act. "Joe's about as good a messenger as we can get to those groups," Rendell says. "And once you've got a good messenger, the issues cut in our favor."
That is particularly true, Rendell says, in his own state, which will be crucial to Obama's hopes in the fall. Not only did Biden grow up in working-class Scranton, Rendell says, but as a Delaware candidate, he has been running political advertisements in the Philadelphia media market for decades. "Joe's as well-known as anybody in Southeastern Pennsylvania with the possible exception of me," Rendell laughs.
In his first appearance with Obama, Biden drew heavily on his Pennsylvania roots, and his faith, which gives him a connection with another group of swing voters. "I was an Irish-Catholic kid from Scranton with a father who like many of yours in tough economic times fell on hard times, but my mom and dad raised me to believe... it's not how many times you get knocked down, it's how quickly you get up," he said. "Ladies and gentlemen, that's your story. That's America's story. It's about if you get up, you can make it."
Obama campaign strategists also note that Biden, as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, is a strong and proven ally of Israel. They hope that will help the Democratic ticket with Jewish voters, who have not backed Obama as solidly as they traditionally have Democratic nominees.
Just as important as the constituencies he may help bring aboard is Biden's obvious relish for the fight ahead. The party's last two vice presidential nominees, Joe Lieberman and John Edwards, were disappointments to Democrats in that regard. Obama himself has turned up the heat on McCain in recent days, and "we just doubled our fire power in the field," Illinois Senator Dick Durbin told MSNBC. Biden stepped onto the stage with Obama in Springfield, Ill., on Saturday, and immediately declared his intention to handcuff John McCain to an unpopular Republican President. McCain "is genuinely a friend of mine. I've known John for 35 years. He served our country with extraordinary courage and I know he wants to do right by America," Biden said. "But the harsh truth is, ladies and gentlemen, you can't change America when you boast and these are John's words [that on] 'the most important issues of our day, I've been totally in agreement and support of President Bush.'"
Despite falling well short in his brief run for the Democratic nomination, Biden was thought to have performed well and with discipline in what seemed like an endless series of Democratic debates. Most memorable was the line with which he took the sheen off one-time GOP frontrunner Rudy Giuliani: "There's only three things he mentions in a sentence: a noun, a verb and 9/11." Democrats realize that with Biden, they are likely to see some occasional errant punches. "I hope so," says one Obama adviser. "Because that will mean he is swinging."