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Archive for Sunday, August 26, 2007

Biden struggles to stand out from ‘others’

August 26, 2007

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Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., speaks Wednesday at the University of Nevada in Reno, Nev.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., speaks Wednesday at the University of Nevada in Reno, Nev.

— To watch Joe Biden at his best, owning a room with bluntness and humor and passion and ideas, feeding off the crowd in a way few politicians do, is to wonder: Why is this guy stuck at 2 percent?

On a recent night at this town's civic center, about 120 Democrats got the A-1 Biden treatment: Self-deprecating jokes, tour-de-force liberal internationalist speech and the whiz-bang finish, quoting the Irish poet Seamus Heaney: "'History says, don't hope on this side of the grave. But then once in a lifetime, the longed-for tidal wave of justice can rise up, and hope and history rhyme.' Please. Please join me in making hope and history rhyme. Because we can."

Standing ovation. "Very good," said Lloyd Martin of Tripoli, Iowa. "You gotta admit, he does tell the truth.

"I think Hillary Clinton should make him secretary of defense."

Ouch.

Low in the polls

Of the 2008 presidential campaign's storylines, that of Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., is among the strangest: Eminent senator, 34 years service, respected chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee during an era of international tumult. Retail politician of rare skill, with a bedazzling smile, a golden tongue and frequent hands-on touches of voters, as if to draw life-force from them. A compelling personal story of early success, horrific personal loss, professional humiliation and ultimate recovery. Even a new book, "Promises to Keep," inching last week onto the New York Times best-seller list.

Yet Biden has no traction. He polls at best up to 5 percent, at worst lumped in with "others." He's raised $6.4 million - compared with about $60 million each raised by the Democratic front-runners, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama.

This even as the election turns on Biden's specialty, national security.

But a war-weary Democratic electorate seeks only to exit Iraq. Instead, Biden offers a plan for a political solution there that could avert chaos. He lambastes opponents who simply "tell you what you want to hear."

Knowing the candidate

Biden says his chief problem is voters know him only from Sunday talk-fests.

"I think one of the things that primary voters care about is, they want to know the candidate," Biden said in an interview. "They want to know more than just about what his or her position is on every issue. ... That's part of what's going on now with us, is to essentially reintroduce myself to the Democratic voters out there. It takes time."

What do they need to know about Biden?

There's the mouth, his greatest gift and most terrible curse. It can make a bad hand a royal flush, as it did in Waverly.

But it can also cause Biden unlimited trouble. It did when he described Obama as "clean and articulate." It did 20 years ago, when at a presidential debate in Iowa, he neglected to credit part of his speech to British politician Neil Kinnock. That led to accusations of serial plagiarism, which drove him from the race. It does at Senate hearings, where Biden's interminable soliloquies set eyeballs rolling. A colleague who admires him describes Biden as almost a case of arrested development: Elected to the Senate at 29, he never really had a boss to tell him to shut the hell up. So he doesn't.

There's the brain, a corollary to the mouth. He loves to share its processes and products. As Biden toured eastern Iowa last week, many questions focused on Iraq. In Independence, speaking to about 40 voters in a diner, he turned a large Biden poster into an ersatz map of Iraq, using his hands to chart out the country and the wider region, explaining in excruciating depth the various issues, sects and tribes at play.

It was impressive mastery of a complex problem, the stuff of graduate seminars. But all that time spent on the nitty-gritty of Iraq was time not spent painting the broad strokes of who Joe Biden is and why he should be president.

Who is Joe Biden?

Finally, there's his story, who Joe Biden is. Stuttering son of a middle-class car salesman. Struggled financially at the University of Delaware. Beat his stutter by reciting poetry to the mirror.

As a young lawyer, upset an incumbent senator in the Republican year of 1972. Then, before he took office, tragedy: Wife and daughter killed in a car wreck. His two boys seriously injured. Biden nearly quit public life before he really began it, but agreed to give it six months, which led to 34 years and counting.

He married again, had a daughter. He commutes by train 250 miles each day, every day, between Wilmington and Washington to be with his family.

Ran for president as a hot prospect in 1988 before it all fell apart over plagiarism. Overcame two aneurysms that required seven months of hospitalization and recuperation. Settled in for a long haul as a senator of substance before deciding to give the White House one last shot.

"I'm operating on the premise that I believe the American public is looking for straight talk," Biden said. "And backed up by a track record that demonstrates you can do something with what you're talking about."

But voters seem to seek the thrill of the new, and Biden, now 64, isn't.

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