Joe Biden is what you would call a close talker. He gets right in your face, almost nose to nose.
This unnerves those with personal-space issues, but that is clearly not the case for hundreds of people who have pushed their way to the rope line outside a pro football shrine to shake the hand of Barack Obama’s running mate, passing him folded-up notes, a white cap and ticket stubs to autograph.
“Bring my brother home from Iraq, please,” one woman begs. A man in a straw hat takes advantage of the proximity and whispers a long message right in Biden’s ear. The Secret Service peels his hands off the candidate’s blue blazer.
This is supposed to be the Joe Biden nobody cares about -- the one who had the shortest vice presidential honeymoon in modern memory, crashed by the younger, sharper-tongued phenom Sarah Palin. After the Republican governor made the scene, a fickle press corps deserted the Delaware senator for Alaska. Palin’s campaign plane was so full that they had to kick people off, Biden’s so empty that reporters had their choice of rows to stretch out and take a nap.
But in recent days something changed. While Biden was on a two-day bus tour of this crucial battleground state last week, Palin’s celebrity began to wane, opening an opportunity for the notoriously loquacious senator to play a more significant role in the Democratic campaign after being largely overshadowed.
He was lapping it up like a big, thirsty St. Bernard, bounding from one Main Street stop to the next. He hugged babies, gobbled sugar pie and crashed tables of women drinking coffee at a diner, the fourth derriere stubbornly squeezed onto an orange bench built for three.
His mission is to win over working-class white voters resistant to an Obama candidacy, whether because of race, experience or the mistaken belief that he is a Muslim.
If Obama is seen as an aloof egghead, Biden is the guy from Scranton who takes the train to work, uses words like “helluva” and “malarkey,” and endlessly quotes his father -- “Champ, when you fall down, geeet up!”
If Obama is young and untested, Biden is the foreign relations expert who has been in the U.S. Senate for more than half of his 65 years -- under seven presidents -- and knows a lot of world leaders by their first names.
In the traditional role of running mates, Biden plays the attack dog so the top of the ticket needn’t stoop to conquer. He portrays the man he calls “my friend John McCain” as a clueless clone of President Bush who insists the economy is strong even on one of its darkest days.
It’s proving to be a tough assignment. Democrats should be cruising toward victory in a state like this, where factories are shuttered and unemployment is 7.4%, the highest rate in 16 years. But polls show the race is a dead heat, with Obama unable to seal the deal with blue-collar Democrats who flocked to Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Which brings Biden to a picturesque street in Maumee, a Toledo suburb straight out of “The Music Man.” A Ford stamping plant closed here last fall, and unemployment in Toledo hit double digits. People are hurting, the economy is issue No. 1 and Biden is trying to give voice to their pain, presuming to know what they talk about at their kitchen tables.
“How are we going to heat the house this winter? Who’s going to pay for Mom’s MRI?” he whispers dramatically as heads nod in the crowd.
The next minute he’s yelling, going after McCain with zeal, red-faced for those close enough to see. “The middle class is getting kicked in the teeth!” he booms. The GOP presidential nominee’s claim that Obama would raise taxes on working-class people, Biden says, is “a flat-out lie.”
Afterward, Shelly Schaefer, 51, a cancer cure specialist, church music director and Obama supporter, is disappointed by the negativity. She wanted less bashing and more substance. “How much of his speech was spent slamming ‘his friend’ John McCain? I am so sick of that.” It won’t change her vote, though.
Across the street, Janet Ritter, a 53-year-old hairdresser whose business is suffering, disagrees. “We need to get mad. We are too nice, not wanting to step on toes. It’s dirty politics again. We need to punch back.”
Democrats are of mixed minds on just how hard to punch. Crowds yell: “Give ‘em hell, Joe” and “Don’t let her lie.” At the rope line in Canton, one woman has this advice for the Oct. 2 Biden-Palin debate: “You kick her butt.”
Away from the Senate, Biden is all folksy stories and plain speak. At one point, he tells a reporter, standing so close she is staring at his lapel, that he’d like to take some of these Republicans out behind the schoolyard -- “You know what I mean?”
We know. This is the “regular Joe” side of Joe Biden in full swing, the one who takes his coffee black and knows he married well because he has a “brother-in-law with a pickup truck.”
This kind of talk goes over big at a labor union hall in Akron. His half-hour speech tends to meander, but when he asks how many people know someone with a house in foreclosure, more than half of the hands in the room go up. And when he repeats his father’s advice about falling down, gritting his teeth and commanding “Geeet up!” they do, leaping to their feet in cheers.
“I think he gets it,” said Mark Monagham, 50, of Akron. “I’m a laborer. I lay pipes and build bridges. We are the ones who built this country. Barack might not know everything; he’s young and new and that’s what we need. Joe’s the experienced one.”
But there is a flip side to Biden’s homespun chattiness: You never know what he might say.
The Republican National Committee started a Biden gaffe clock as soon as Obama tapped him. The man who once praised the Illinois senator as “articulate and bright and clean” recently said Clinton might have made a better running mate. At a campaign stop in Missouri, he invited a paraplegic official to “stand up; let the people see you,” before realizing to his horror that the man was in a wheelchair. “Oh, God love ya,” Biden said.
Here in the union hall, where CBS anchor Katie Couric has shown up in another sign of the fading Palin mystique, he repeats a remark that caused a stir days before: that wealthier Americans should be “patriotic” and pay more taxes to give those earning less a break. (Obama says he would cut taxes for 95% of Americans, raising them only for those earning more than $250,000.)
Within hours, the McCain camp spun out an ad reinforcing the stereotype of tax-and-spend Democrats.
Biden acknowledges that he talks too much. His mother likes to say, “Don’t get him started.” And his wife, Jill, reminds him to “leave something behind.”
He says the gaffe clock doesn’t bother him. “That is such small-bore [politics],” he groans, trailing off to muse about taking “guys like that” out behind that schoolyard.
He has just come off another rope line and is rubbing his hands with disinfectant, a campaign staple in flu season. For a regular guy, Biden is very well-tailored. The break in his gray slacks is exquisite, his loafers are tassled, his cuffs are fastened with little silver donkeys and there is a starched hankie in his breast pocket. Even as one of the poorest members of Congress, he makes more money than most of the people who took off work, if they have work, to hear him.
Yet many called him a “roll-up-your-sleeves kind of guy,” the son of working-class Catholics who understands that sometimes you don’t know how much it costs to fill up the gas tank because you never have enough money to fill it. His campaigning style recalls Bill Clinton’s; he listens, and people feel permission to use the few seconds they have to talk about their shrinking Social Security checks, their stolen pensions, even their divorces.
Later that night, at a rally at the College of Wooster, a liberal arts school in a conservative county not far from Canton, Biden is happily posing for pictures when a woman calls out, “I’m the mom of a U.S. soldier.” She is Patty Groom, 47, with a 26-year-old son in the Army who just left for his second tour in Afghanistan. Her husband is laid off, her daughter is 9, and the paycheck Groom earns at the steel bearing plant isn’t enough, so she has taken to charging the groceries.
“He said his son is going too,” she recounted afterward, sitting down on the bleachers with tears in her eyes. “He put his forehead on my forehead and said, ‘I promise you with everything in me that I will bring our troops home.’ It was like nobody else was here.”