Hidin' Biden: Reining In a Voluble No. 2

Though Obama's campaign struggles to keep his voluble running mate in check, Biden has been valuable in connecting with swing-state voters

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Callie Shell / Aurora for TIME

Senator Joe Biden listens to his iPod aboard the Obama campaign plane en route to Washington, D.C., from Greensboro, N.C.

Anyone who has watched Joe Biden over 35 years in the Senate might have a little bit of trouble recognizing the guy who is running to be Barack Obama's Vice President. Oh, yes, he looks like the same fellow. But traveling with Biden during this campaign has sometimes been like reporting on a politician packaged in shrink-wrap. While his windy, off-point pontification was the stuff of legend among his Senate colleagues, Biden is now leashed to a teleprompter even when he is talking in a high school gym that is three-quarters empty. The exposure hound who in recent years appeared more often than any other guest on the Sunday talk shows is a virtual stranger to the small band of reporters on his plane--less accessible than even Sarah Palin is to her traveling pack of bloodhounds. And Biden keeps to a schedule that provides a minimum of off-the-cuff encounters with voters, except across a rope line.

The campaign's caution is understandable. With Obama leading in all the national polls, only a few things would seem to have the potential to throw him off course. One of those things is his running mate. Sticking to a script has never been one of Biden's stronger suits, as he demonstrated recently at a Seattle fund raiser. "Mark my words: it will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy," Biden told the $1,000-a-ticket Democratic donors, who no doubt were startled to discover that the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse had ridden into the downtown Sheraton. "Remember, I said it standing here, if you don't remember anything else I said. Watch--we're going to have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy." A bemused Obama responded, "I think that Joe sometimes engages in rhetorical flourishes." In a matter of days, Biden's comments were the subject of both a John McCain television ad and the opening skit on Saturday Night Live.

To the relief of some in Obama's camp, an operation that runs on discipline, there have been fewer lampoonable episodes than many had expected when Obama tapped the man who had famously described him as "articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." Whereas McCain's pick of a running mate was a big move aimed at jolting the race, Obama had hoped instead to bolster his foreign policy credentials, give him a second chance with white Catholics and, above all, do no harm. And though some Obama allies had qualms about Biden's tendency to run off the rails, they noted he had kept it in check during his own presidential campaign. Since being picked for VP, the Delaware Senator has performed well in what advisers say were his three biggest tests: his convention speech in Denver; his debate with Sarah Palin; and stumping for working-class voters in Pennsylvania, the crucial battleground state where Biden was born and to which he has made six trips since joining the Democratic ticket. In a recent national Pew Research Center poll, 60% of those surveyed said they had a favorable view of Biden, compared with 44% who felt that way about Palin. And that was before a civil war of anonymous quotes broke out within the McCain-Palin operation, with Palin's allies saying she is frustrated enough to "go rogue" against her handlers and McCain's calling his running mate a "diva."

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