Biden launches campaign for president

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, a foreign policy expert and Iraq war critic, entered the Democratic race for president Wednesday with a clumsy comment about Illinois Sen. Barack Obama that was taken by some to be racially insensitive.

Though he touted his foreign affairs experience during a press conference with reporters, Biden was forced to explain why he had described Obama, a rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, as "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy."

Biden made the comments to the New York Observer and said his use of the word "clean" to describe the African American politician was "taken totally out of context."

Obama initially told reporters that they would have to ask Biden what he was thinking when he made the comment: "I donít spend too much time worrying about what folks are talking about during a campaign season."

But by dayís end, the senator took a sharper tone, issuing a public rebuke to his more senior colleague.

"I didnít take Senator Bidenís comments personally, but obviously they were historically inaccurate," Obama said. "African-American presidential candidates like Jesse Jackson, Shirley Chisholm, Carol Moseley Braun and Al Sharpton gave a voice to many important issues through their campaigns, and no one would call them inarticulate."

Biden called Obama to explain his comments and Obama told him directly that he did not take the comments personally, aides to the Illinois senator said.

"This guy is a superstar," Biden said, effusively praising Obamaís attributes in what was supposed to be his own presidential debut. "He is probably the most exciting candidate this party has had in a long time."


Even so, Biden released a separate statement Wednesday night as he tried to tamp down the spiraling controversy.

"I deeply regret any offense my remark in the New York Observer might have caused anyone. That was not my intent and I expressed that to Senator Obama," he said.

Biden told reporters that he has long enjoyed the support of the African-American community in Delaware and did not intend to cause offense. He also said he did not believe that Sharpton, Jackson or other black leaders would misunderstand his remarks.


"My mom has an expression, Ďclean as a whistle, sharp as a tack.í He is crisp and clear. I think a lot of him," said Biden, describing Obama as "lightning in a bottle" and adding that Obama had captured the imagination of the country like no other politician.

In an interview, Jackson called Biden "a decent man" who had made a verbal gaffe while trying to slight the competition.

"He was saying in effect that Barack is more style than substance, that he is just coming onto the scene," Jackson said. "In doing so, he seemed to be dismissive of our 1988 campaign and diminishing Barackís potential campaign."


Jackson, who spoke with both Obama and Biden by telephone Wednesday, said he would not characterize Bidenís comments as racially motivated.

"That is my interpretation and Barackís interpretation," he said, adding that he hoped Bidenís campaign would not be harmed by the poor choice of words.


As he kicked off his candidacy, Biden, 64, said he believes he would be a better president than Obama or Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., two of the top candidates in the race.

"I make no apologies for saying I believe I am the best prepared of all the candidates," said Biden, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee who has served in the Senate for the last 34 years.

"The next president, left with the debacle this president will leave us, will have no margin for error and will need a fully thought out, comprehensive notion of what he or she will do with the problems in the world," Biden said.


In some ways, Bidenís entry into the race signals the preeminent role that the war in Iraq will play in the 2008 election. The issue dominated the midterm elections as Democrats swept to power in Congress. Now, each of the presidential candidates has detailed positions on how to approach the conflict and the region.

Biden criticized both Clintonís and Obamaís positions on Iraq, singling out Clintonís ideas as "incorrect for how to proceed." Clinton would cap American troop levels and has threatened to cut off funding for Iraqi troops.

"From the part of Hillaryís proposal, the part that really baffles me is, ĎWeíre going to teach the Iraqis a lesson,í" Biden said. "Weíre not going to equip them? O.K. Cap our troops and withdraw support from the Iraqis? Thatís a real good idea," he added sarcastically.


The Clinton campaign had no comment on Bidenís criticism.

Like Clinton, Biden voted in 2002 to authorize President Bush to use force if necessary in Iraq. Since that time, however, Biden has become an ardent critic of the administration and the war, complaining about poor preparation and field intelligence, as well as insufficient troop levels. His proposal would divide the nation along ethnic lines in order to put an end to the civil strife.

Asked whether his verbosity would hinder his candidacy, Biden was unusually terse: "Iíll leave that to the voters to decide."

As a presidential candidate and as a public figure, Biden has a compelling personal story. In 1972, while a young 29-year-old county councilman, he challenged a sitting Republican senator with an anti-Vietnam War platform, winning by a little more than 3,000 votes.

But just five weeks later, his wife and baby daughter were killed in a car accident and his two sons were badly injured. Biden was reluctantly sworn into office by the side of one sonís bed. From his first day in the Senate, he has made it a point to commute home by train every day.

(c) 2007, Chicago Tribune.

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