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Campaign tests Joe Biden's everyman appeal

STEUBENVILLE, Ohio — About the last thing Barack Obama's advisors expected when Joe Biden joined the ticket was to see him develop a kitsch public persona — an odd blend of affable everyman and the Dos Equis "Most Interesting Man in the World."

But they've been quick to take advantage. At the Obama for America campaign store, an online visitor can buy "Morning Joe" coffee mugs (featuring the grinning face of a man who rarely lacks energy), "BFD" T-shirts (memorializing one of the vice president's more famous off-color lines) or the whole "Joe Biden Pack" available "by popular demand" for $30.

For a White House led by a famously cool — at times robotic — commander in chief, the vice president's loose, less-programmed, often self-deprecating style provides a humanizing touch.

It can also keep Obama strategists awake at night, as when he preempted the president not long ago on the subject of same-sex marriage.

But the pluses of Biden's spontaneous, say-what's-on-your-mind personality outweigh the minuses, White House and Obama campaign aides insist.

Over the next five months, that proposition will be tested.

Obama's reelection effort will depend heavily on Biden as "Middle Class Joe" — playing up his roots in Scranton, Pa., and Claymont, Del., vouching for the president to wary blue-collar voters. He's particularly needed in a string of majority-white counties in Ohio, Pennsylvania and other battleground states where Hillary Rodham Clinton bested Obama in the 2008 primaries. It's familiar territory for him. Last campaign, Biden held more events in Ohio than in any other state.

This is not necessarily turf — or a voting bloc — that the Obama campaign expects to win. But they need to keep Mitt Romney's margin down. If Biden can win over enough culturally conservative, blue-collar voters to push Obama's percentage from the low 30s to the high 30s in counties where the Obama-Biden ticket lagged behind John F. Kerry's 2004 numbers, that would be enough to win Ohio, a senior official with the Ohio campaign said.

Republicans, with their war room on a constant state of alert, will push to prevent that, in part by trying to keep Biden off balance.

"There's a tendency to say when Biden makes gaffes, that's part of his appeal. But when he's consistently making mistakes on issues that drive them off message, and essentially make Mitt Romney's argument for him, that's a major problem for them," said Republican National Committee spokesman Tim Miller.

On Biden's recent swing through eastern Ohio, Romney spokesman Ryan Williams trailed him, iPhone camera in hand, trying to catalog gaffes and perhaps to provoke one. At one point, as Biden sat with a family for dinner at an Italian restaurant here, Williams appeared to be listening in from a neighboring table. As Biden waved him over for an introduction and asked him to join the table, saying it would be easier than eavesdropping, Williams challenged him over a comment he had made about coal — a sensitive topic in the region.

Biden got through that exchange easily. But Republicans sense the escape may not always be so smooth.

Despite decades in public office, the intense scrutiny he is now under represents something new for Biden. After his first Senate campaign in 1972 — an upset he won at age 29 by just over 3,000 votes — Biden rarely faced much of a fight. His runs for the presidential nomination, including one in 2008 against Obama, failed to get much lift or flight time. And as a vice presidential candidate in 2008, he was largely overshadowed by John McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin.

Biden's initial deployments this year, for a series of speeches on key issues — the auto industry bailout, manufacturing, tax fairness, retirement security and national security — have been considered largely successful at Obama's Chicago headquarters.

Campaign strategists see him as a perfect weapon to use against Romney — "Scranton Joe" vs. "Swiss Mitt." After Romney had called Obama "out of touch" in a recent address, Biden asked soon after: "Hey, how many of you all have a Swiss bank account?"

"I'm inviting you back every other day from now until November," former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, now an Obama national co-chairman, said as he shared the stage with Biden in Youngstown.

"And I'll be here most of those days," Biden responded.

His assignment on this swing was to amplify the Obama campaign's use of Bain Capital to cast Romney as an unfeeling chief executive who walked away with millions even as some of the companies managed by his private equity firm fell into bankruptcy and laid off workers.

At a steel manufacturing plant, Biden's voice crackled with emotion as he raged against Republican criticism of those attacks as "class warfare."

"My mother and my father dreamed as much as any rich guy dreams," he said.

"They don't get us!" he said of Romney and his friends. "They don't get who we are!"

"Wander around here. These people are incredibly resilient," Biden told reporters at a barbecue joint in Washington, Pa., where he had ditched the suit jacket and bounced from booth to booth chatting with locals, lingering at one point under a framed photo of James Dean and a sign reading "Free Beer Tomorrow."

"You'll get this if you're from here — this is about a lot more than just a job. It's about their pride. It's about their sense of self, about dignity. That's the part [Romney] seems to miss."

Strickland, who supported Clinton in 2008, said Biden "brings a unique ability to talk to the working middle class," particularly in eastern and southeastern Ohio.

"It's not dissimilar from his own personal experience," he said. "He brings a great deal in his ability to talk the talk because he's walked the walk. And that's important to people here."

Whether Biden actually has that kind of pull with working-class voters remains uncertain. Recent polls show the public sharply divided over him, much as they are over Obama. A USA Today/Gallup poll this month found slightly more Americans viewed Biden unfavorably than favorably, much as they did his predecessor, the notably less genial Dick Cheney.

Biden, however, is undaunted in his focus. In a speech in New Hampshire last week, he used the phrase "middle class" 19 times.

"Some of you have known me for most of my career. What have I always talked about? The middle class," he said. "Not because I'm middle-class Joe. … I don't live like I did when I was growing up. I have a beautiful home, and you pay me a lot of money," he said, referring to his perks as vice president. "But I remember. I remember."

Between speeches, Biden was playful in local stops. He joked with firefighters in the town of Salem, Ohio, about receding hairlines. Outside, he detoured to mingle with a growing crowd, letting children check out the inside of the SUV that carries him in the 20-car vice presidential motorcades.

That night, he was buying ice cream for everyone in sight at a late stop at the Steubenville Dairy Queen. Footage of him downing a chocolate-dipped vanilla cone went viral the next day.

When a reporter asked whether he could afford it all, Biden grinned and said, "Hey, you know me, man." When it was pointed out that his financial disclosure statement, released a day earlier, showed him to have far more meager holdings than the president, he shared a favorite quip about a newspaper account that had speculated he assumed office with fewer assets than any previous vice president.

"I assume they were talking about financial assets," he joked.

michael.memoli@latimes.com

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