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Biden quick to enter the fray

Times Staff Writers

Sleeves rolled up, Joseph R. Biden Jr. bounded onto an outdoor stage here Saturday and kicked off his campaign as Barack Obama’s running mate with an emotional appeal to blue-collar voters and a blistering attack on John McCain.

Moments after Obama, the presumed Democratic presidential nominee, introduced Biden to a roaring crowd of supporters, the six-term senator from Delaware ripped into their opponent, tying McCain again and again to the unpopular President Bush.

“You can’t change America when you supported George Bush’s policies 95% of the time,” Biden declared, his suit jacket cast aside in the sweltering heat.

Even as he expressed admiration for Republican McCain, a longtime friend and Senate colleague from Arizona, Biden said, “I say with every fiber of my being, I believe we cannot as a nation stand for four more years of this.”

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Party leaders heading to the Democratic National Convention, which starts Monday in Denver, enthusiastically embraced the new ticket and Biden’s aggressive language after watching Obama’s once-commanding lead slip away in recent national polls.

They dismissed Biden’s criticisms of Obama and his miscues during the hard-fought Democratic primary season, when Biden made a short-lived run for the presidential nomination, as comments cast in the heat of a campaign.

McCain’s camp quickly released a 30-second TV ad showing Biden praising McCain and saying that he didn’t believe Obama was ready for the presidency. The Republican National Committee unveiled a new website criticizing Biden’s long Senate record and recycling other comments he made about Obama.

Biden insisted Saturday that after watching Obama campaign, he is convinced he has the “judgment, intelligence and steel in his spine” to lead the nation.

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‘Working-class kid’

Obama spoke first Saturday in a carefully choreographed event outside the Old State Capitol, the stately limestone edifice where Abraham Lincoln once worked and where Obama, a first-term senator from Illinois, launched his unlikely White House campaign 19 months ago.

“Joe won’t just make a good vice president -- he will make a great one,” Obama promised the cheering crowd, which police estimated at 35,000.

Many waved newly issued deep-blue Obama-Biden signs.

He praised Biden as a “working-class kid” from Scranton, Pa., who had become a world-class “statesman” -- a double-barreled appeal to working-class voters and those nervous about Obama’s relative lack of foreign policy experience.

“He’s an expert on foreign policy whose heart and values are firmly rooted in the middle class,” Obama said. “He has stared down dictators and spoken out for American cops and firefighters.”

Then, as the crowd roared approval, the 65-year-old Biden bolted from a side door of the Capitol and jogged onto the stage beside Obama. The two men shook hands, flung their arms around each other’s shoulders and pumped their arms in the air.

Biden has a reputation as a long-winded orator. But he sounded much more impassioned Saturday than Obama, who was often low-key.

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And Biden held little back in his attacks on McCain.

He mocked McCain’s inability in an interview last week to recall how many houses he owns with his wife, Cindy, whose net worth is estimated up to $100 million.

While other families sit at the kitchen table and worry about paying bills, Biden said, McCain faces a choice: “He’ll have to figure out which of the seven kitchen tables to sit at.”

In one of the harshest criticisms the Democrats have leveled, Biden suggested McCain has lost his moral compass in his drive for the White House.

“I must tell you, frankly, I’ve been disappointed in my friend John McCain, who gave in to the right wing of his party and yielded to the very ‘Swift Boat’ politics that he once so deplored,” he said.

Four years ago, some Republicans who supported Bush’s reelection challenged combat medals awarded to Democratic nominee John F. Kerry, who had commanded a Swift Boat in Vietnam. Many of the charges were quickly proved false, but the Massachusetts senator’s campaign never recovered. McCain, a former Navy aviator who was shot down and imprisoned in Vietnam, was among those who denounced the smears.

Praise from Clinton

Democrats, and even two Senate Republicans, praised Biden’s foreign policy expertise, his national security credentials, and his appeal as an Irish Catholic to blue-collar voters -- all presumed gaps in Obama’s resume. He is expected to work hard to win working-class Democrats who supported Hillary Rodham Clinton in the primary and who remain suspicious of Obama.

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Clinton, who fought hardest and longest against Obama for the Democratic nomination, hailed his choice as running mate, though many of her supporters had hoped she would be chosen. The New York senator called Biden “an exceptionally strong, experienced leader and devoted public servant” who would make a “dynamic vice president.”

Biden long has hoped for a White House berth. He first ran for the Democratic nomination in 1988, and launched another bid last year before abandoning his campaign after finishing fifth in the Iowa caucuses.

He did not endorse either Clinton or Obama during their drawn-out struggle, but praised Obama effusively in a July speech, more than a month after Clinton had ended her campaign.

Despite the signs of party unity, the Democratic duo’s first public appearance involved an odd balancing act that reflected potential pitfalls for their fall campaign.

Obama hailed Biden’s 35 years in Congress, where he enjoys widespread respect as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But since Obama has rooted his campaign in calls for change from politics as usual, he sought to depict Biden as a public servant rather than a consummate Washington insider.

“Joe Biden is that rare mix -- for decades, he has brought change to Washington, but Washington hasn’t changed him,” Obama told the crowd.

Biden also decried the partisan political culture.

“I have never in my life seen Washington so broken,” he said. These times, he added, “call for a total change in Washington’s world view. These times require more than a good soldier. They require a wise leader.”

McCain, who has spent 25 years in Congress, also denounces Washington regularly on the campaign trail.

McCain camp takes aim

After the speech, Ben Porritt, a McCain spokesman, ridiculed Obama for mistakenly introducing Biden as the “next president,” a slip of the tongue that he immediately corrected.

“The reality is nothing has changed since Joe Biden first made his assessment that Barack Obama is not ready to lead,” Porritt said. “He wasn’t ready then, and he isn’t ready now.”

McCain spent the day with advisors at his 15-acre desert retreat in Sedona, Ariz. He and Cindy emerged at 8 a.m. for their standard morning drive to a Starbucks in nearby Cottonwood, but did not speak to reporters.

McCain has not announced his choice for vice president.

Endorsements for the ticket poured in from Democratic leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who called Biden a “sage voice on many of the toughest foreign policy issues of our time.”

Also lending support were Democrats whom Obama had considered as possible running mates, including Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine and Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, who called Biden “an outstanding public servant with deep experience and a fighting spirit.”

Two senior Republicans who often have clashed with the Bush administration and don’t plan to attend their party’s convention, Sens. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, reached across the aisle to lend support.

Hagel praised Biden for his “seasoned judgment and his vast experience in foreign policy and national security.”

The Rev. Al Sharpton, the civil rights leader who ran for the Democratic nomination in 2004, issued a preemptive defense of Biden’s odd description of Obama to a New York Observer reporter in January 2007: “I mean, you got the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” Biden was quoted as saying. “I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”

Although Sharpton ridiculed Biden’s comments at the time, saying, “I take a bath every day,” he insisted Saturday that Biden’s remarks now are “a nonissue.” Biden’s civil rights record, he said, “is exemplary.”

Months after the story broke, Obama spoke up in Biden’s defense during a campaign debate, praising him for his years of work for racial equality.

Obama formally offered Biden the vice presidential job in a telephone call from a campaign stop in Virginia on Thursday night, aides said.

Despite intense speculation, the news did not leak until late Friday night, shortly before aides unleashed a flood of e-mail to Democrats finally announcing the ticket.

Obama and his wife, Michelle, flew at midday from Chicago to Springfield. Biden, joined by his wife, Jill, and their three adult children, flew separately from Delaware.

After the candidates spoke, their spouses joined them on stage.

Leaning over a metal barricade, his face glistening with sweat, Larry Sorrell said he drove 96 miles to see the newly minted Democratic ticket. He was pleased that Obama chose Biden.

“He’s kind of brass,” he said, “but I like his style.”

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michael.finnegan @latimes.com

bob.drogin@latimes.com

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Finnegan reported from Springfield, Ill., and Drogin from Washington. Times staff writer Cynthia Dizikes in Washington contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

About Biden

Name: Joseph Robinette Biden Jr.

Age: 65; born Nov. 20, 1942, in Scranton, Pa.

Experience: Elected to the U.S. Senate from Delaware in 1972 at age 29. Has served more than 30 years on the Foreign Relations Committee. Sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988 and 2008.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in history and political science, University of Delaware, 1965; law degree, Syracuse University, 1968.

Family: Married Neilia Hunter in 1966 and had three children: Naomi, Hunter and Beau. His wife and daughter died in a car crash in 1972, which injured both sons. Married Jill Jacobs, a schoolteacher in 1977; they have one daughter, Ashley. Beau Biden, Delaware’s attorney general, is a captain in the Army National Guard and is being deployed to Iraq.

Personal: Diagnosed with two life-threatening brain aneurysms in 1988 and underwent surgery to correct them. Every day the Senate is in session, Biden makes the 80-minute commute from his home in Wilmington, Del., to Washington on an Amtrak train.

-- Kate Linthicum


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