Biden's unscripted moments keep campaign on its toes

DANVILLE, Va. — A Joe Biden campaign event can at times have the feel of a high-wire act. Sure, there's a prompter in place, and a message of the day he's been tasked to deliver. But the vice president's freelancing can begin almost immediately.

"Mr. Mayor, thank you for the passport, thank you for letting me come back in," Biden said as he began remarks in Danville this week. "You get invited once, it's OK. Get invited back, man, that means he doesn't know any better," he said, ignoring his prepared remarks.

The same Joe Biden who can display a mastery of the kind of face-to-face, hand-to-hand retail campaigning that President Obama is sometimes accused of lacking can also be a bit too candid, too over the top. That's always been the case, but the emergence of the highly scripted Paul D. Ryan as the Republican vice presidential candidate makes the contrast all the more pointed.

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On balance, the campaign insists that Biden remains a valuable asset. But a firestorm over his remarks to a diverse audience here Tuesday — when he accused Republicans of wanting to "put y'all back in chains," in reference to Wall Street reform — points to the challenge of managing a blunt candidate in an era where unscripted moments go viral in an instant.

Most candidates give the same stump speech over and over, putting reporters if not the audience to sleep. But during any Biden speech, there might be a dozen moments to make press handlers cringe, and prompt reporters to turn to each other with amusement and confusion.

Any such moment can be quickly edited down, posted online and relayed to blogs and inboxes — and some will stick, but many more are just ignored or saved for a Biden blooper reel.

In Danville, as he turned to the portion of his remarks where the campaign's designated attack dog sinks his teeth into the Republican ticket's agenda, Biden said Romney had pledged in his first 100 days as president to "let the big banks once again write their own rules."

Then he went off-script.

"Unchain Wall Street!" he said, voice rising, prompting boos. "They're going to put y'all back in chains," he added, to a mixture of applause and agreeing jeers.

After the Romney campaign pounced, Biden attempted to clarify his remarks in his next campaign stop. In Wytheville, Va., he said he meant to use the term "unshackled," one that Republicans themselves had used in relation to regulations on banks and businesses.

The story would linger for another few days, with Republicans like Sen. John McCain of Arizona egging it on by suggesting again that Obama could replace Biden on the ticket with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Any fallout would be short-lived, former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) said in an interview.

"Right now it all seems to be about winning the news cycle. If you can catch the other guy in a gaffe, you win the news day," he said. "For the vice president it's kind of a warning shot. If you do this in September, it would be more meaningful."

Although Ryan, of Wisconsin, is untested on the national stage, he has an advantage over Biden in that he "comes out of the new political world," accustomed to the immediacy of the Twitter era, Davis said. The vice president has "got to adapt."

Aides traveling with Biden on a three-day tour of North Carolina and rural southwest Virginia occasionally displayed unease as the vice president veered outside the lines — or even simply at the possibility that he might. The unscheduled stops that Biden made at a firehouse, local eateries and a country store this week were choreographed to let television cameras capture "middle-class Joe" in action, but made it difficult for reporters to engage with him.

As he greeted locals in Radford, Va., on Wednesday, a reporter attempted to ask Biden about the reaction to his comments the day before in Danville. Almost immediately, staff announced it was time for reporters to return to their designated vans in the motorcade. Biden simply continued to smile as he posed for a picture with a young boy.

There are other indications that aides are attempting to minimize the dissemination of uncomfortable moments — whether they be genuine gaffes or moments they worry will be misrepresented. The White House press office has not released a complete transcript of any Biden speech, whether campaign or official, in more than two months. Transcripts for all of Obama's speeches, however, are distributed quickly, as they are for many of the first lady's events.

Aides acknowledge that Biden was vulnerable to a "gaffe-watch," given his reputation.

"Everything is in the moment, and everybody is vulnerable under this microscope right now. It's like hand-to-hand combat," said one aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the situation candidly.

But that doesn't mean the campaign plans to bottle him up. "The objective is not to get good press coverage. That's part of it, but it's getting on the ground and interacting with people, and having them come away with an impression that they then share with other people. That's how you penetrate," the aide said.

It's also clear that there's a significant difference in how Biden's trip was covered in the national press than the local press. The front page of the Danville Register & Bee on Tuesday was dominated by photos of Biden, sporting aviator glasses and a broad smile, chatting with a high school football team. Thursday's Roanoke Times showed Biden, tie loosened, greeting a local woman.

It's such local coverage that the campaign sees as more influential in shaping voter opinion than the gaffe- and horse-race-obsessed cable-centric coverage.

As the "chains" remark illustrates, the staff has come to a familiar approach: Fix it as quickly as possible, and move on. Beyond that, "there isn't a whole lot we can do if other people aren't ready to go on," the aide said.

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michael.memoli@latimes.com

Twitter: @mikememoli

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