Campaign Portrait, Joe Biden: Orator for the Next Generation

Orator for the Next Generation Does Joe Biden talk too much?

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Biden remains at the bottom of polls, but party donors, who know that ! preliminary surveys are not critical, have put his campaign treasury in the penthouse with more than $2 million in contributions. Says Republican Analyst John Sears: "Biden, on paper, has more to work with in putting together a broadly based candidacy than any of the other Democrats."

Yet as Biden traveled the country last week, he was trailed by doubts about his ability to convert paper assets to real ones. His overtures to the new generation should have helped him attract support from Gary Hart's ruined campaign, but so far few voters have followed. Some party workers are put off by Biden's verbal excesses. Says an Iowa activist whom Biden has unsuccessfully courted: "He might just talk himself out of the nomination."

A study in chutzpah when performing extemporaneously, Biden continues to generate needless friction with careless remarks. Asked last week whether he would consider Jesse Jackson as a running mate, Biden could have ducked the question. Instead, he said that Jackson lacks experience in elective office. The next day he backed off, saying the discussion was "silly" because Jackson is far ahead of him in polls.

Biden's intimates can see trouble coming, as they did earlier this month. A reporter mildly challenged him about earlier speeches in Iowa. Biden responded with his devilish Jack Nicholson grin, a sign that a wisecrack is winning the struggle to get out. Then came his staccato chuckle -- heh-heh-heh -- and the zinger, a complaint that the newspaper had been too cheap to send the reporter to Iowa. As he often does, Biden later apologized.

Biden recognizes that these incidents feed the perception that he is a gabby lightweight. He is no "hothead," he insists; certain occasions warrant anger, but his temper is "measured." One friend suggests that the hip shooting comes from a "complicated mix of the emotional and the calculating." A Biden aide observes that "somewhere in him is the Irish Catholic kid struggling to show 'them' that he's as good as they are."

During his 14 years in the Senate, Biden has dug deep into a few issues that engage him, such as the SALT II treaty and the 1984 omnibus crime bill, which he helped steer to enactment through liberal-conservative cross fire. But he has never become a recognized leader on any single large question. He has a short attention span, say his critics. He is eclectic, reply his supporters. He has ambitions that the Senate hierarchy could not satisfy, chorus all.

Friends who knew Biden decades ago in Delaware recall all three attributes in the brash Irish boy whose charm could command a crowd even then. The Biden family had moved from Scranton when their firstborn, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr., was ten. They settled in a neat, three-bedroom house in a middle-class suburban development called Mayfield. Joe Sr., who never attended college, sold Chevrolets. Joe Jr. shared a room with his two brothers. Valerie, who would grow up to manage her brother's campaigns, was the lucky occupant of the third bedroom.

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