WASHINGTON // As a foreign policy heavyweight with a son reporting for duty in Iraq, the choice of senator Joe Biden as running mate fills in some of the most glaring gaps in Barack Obama's campaign for the White House. With the latest polls showing John McCain, his Republican rival, edging slightly ahead, the Obama camp has added age and experience to the youthful idealism that has defined the Democratic quest so far. Mr Obama was an 11-year-old schoolboy when Mr Biden was first elected to the US Senate in 1972 at the young age of 29. While the first black candidate for the presidency attempted to bolster his flimsy foreign policy credentials last month with a lightning tour of Afghanistan, the Middle East and Europe, Mr Biden has sat on the Senate's foreign relations committee for more than three decades.
His Washington pedigree is even longer than Mr McCain's, who entered congress in 1982 and became the senator for Arizona in 1987. The news that his son Robinette "Beau" Biden III will be deployed to Iraq in October as a captain in the JAG corps of the Delaware Army National Guard even competes with Mr McCain's military service in Vietnam, where he spent five years as a prisoner of war. The choice of Mr Biden, however, seemed less likely several months ago, when he too was a candidate for Washington's top job. In January, he referred to Mr Obama as "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy". Those comments, made in an interview with a New York newspaper, were seen as racist by several civil rights leaders and effectively dashed Mr Biden's admittedly feeble White House aspirations.
And while Mr Biden has a reputation as an attack dog when it comes to debating, an earlier bid for the presidency in 1988 came to a premature end when he was found to have plagiarised a speech by the then leader of the British Labour Party, Neil Kinnock. He also has a reputation for long-winded and somewhat dull speeches. As a rival to Mr Obama for the nomination before dropping out due to lack of support, he castigated his then rival for a lack of experience, saying, "The presidency is not something that lends itself to on-the-job training." Later he ruled himself out of the job he has just accepted, insisting: "I am not running for vice president. I would not accept it if anyone offered it to me. The fact of the matter is I'd rather stay as chairman of the foreign relations committee than be vice president." All this was firmly in the past as the Obama-Biden ticket made its first official appearance in front of ecstatic supporters at a rally yesterday at the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois, the same spot where Mr Obama kicked off his campaign more than a year ago. The two men will embark on a tour that winds through the states of Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri and Montana before landing in Denver for the Democratic National Convention, where party delegates will officially put their names on the ballot. Mr Biden will deliver a speech on Wednesday night followed by Mr Obama's acceptance speech on Thursday.
Unlike Mr Obama, who opposed the war in Iraq from the start, Mr Biden voted in favour of military action but has since been a vocal critic of George W Bush's policies in Iraq. He has repeatedly chastised America's strategy there, including Mr Bush's troop surge that Republicans often credit for decreased levels of violence in the war-torn country. Mr Biden has also called for a federal system of government in Iraq, with separate regions for Kurds and Sunni and Shiite Muslims. While expressing concern over Tehran's nuclear ambitions, he has threatened Mr Bush with impeachment if he attempts to attack Iran, calling for international diplomcy. "Iran is years away from having a bomb and a missile to deliver it. We need to use the time wisely," Mr Biden has said. While criticising Mr Bush's handling of the contract to run several American ports by Dubai Ports two years ago, he attacked some of the most vocal opponents of the deal for "anti-Arab bashing". The son of an Irish-Catholic car salesman from the industrial city of Scranton, Pennsylvania, Mr Biden is one of the least well-off politicians in Washington. Like many Americans he still takes a train to work every day and was ranked as the poorest senator in Congress by the Center For Responsive Politics, which put his minimum net worth at minus US$300,000 (Dh1.1 million).
There have been other hardships in his personal life. His first wife and daughter were killed in a car crash while Christmas shopping shortly after his election in 1972, a tragedy which nearly led to him leaving politics. Ten years ago he suffered two brain aneurysms, but made a full recovery after surgery. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org