Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama's selection of Sen. Joe Biden to be his running mate reached a pivotal point in a secret meeting on the night of Aug. 6. Sen. Biden was whisked into a Minneapolis hotel room through a back entrance before Sen. Obama left for his Hawaii vacation. They talked one-on-one for 90 minutes. "It was spirited and pragmatic," says one adviser who was briefed.
The rendezvous capped weeks of pitching by Biden advisers. It culminated in Sen. Obama's formal announcement by text message around 3 a.m. Saturday that Sen. Biden was the choice, and led to the big question that now looms over the choice: Will a 35-year veteran of Washington help or hurt a political newcomer running on a message of "change"?
As a 2008 presidential candidate, Sen. Biden got less than 1% of the delegates in the opening January Iowa caucus, and dropped out of the race quickly. But as a candidate to be Sen. Obama's running mate, the veteran Delaware senator outcampaigned rivals by successfully arguing that his benefits outweighed some considerable baggage.
Passes Its High-Profile National Test
When the Obama campaign's vice-presidential vetters sought financial statements, political speeches and medical records, Sen. Biden's team turned the grueling task into an opportunity to sell their man. Their most obvious pitch was his strong experience in foreign policy at a time of crisis, one of Sen. Obama's biggest weak spots with voters. Sen. Biden's foreign-policy director traveled with Sen. Obama to Iraq and Afghanistan during his overseas tour in late July, giving the presidential contender a close-up sense of the expertise the Biden circle could provide.
But Biden allies also labored hard to turn one of his potential liabilities -- his long career in Washington -- into a strength. Point one: Sen. Biden took the train out of Washington almost every night to go home to Delaware. Two: his humble roots, as the son of a car dealer in Scranton, Pa., a pivotal state for Democrats. Biden aides pushed the idea that their man could help with working-class whites who eluded Sen. Obama during the primaries.
Team Biden also showed some sharp elbows against rivals for the No. 2 slot. When news surfaced that the wife of another leading vice-presidential contender, Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, made nearly $1 million a year on corporate boards, Biden backers quickly pointed out to friends and former colleagues in the Obama camp that Jill Biden made far less working as a teacher.
Meanwhile, backers of Sen. Bayh and Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine also were trying to put the best light on their candidates. Gov. Kaine's aides, for example, pointed to YouTube videos showing him firing up crowds in Spanish, reaching a key demographic in a swing state. Sen. Bayh's partisans emphasized stature in Indiana, potentially another key state.
On Thursday Sen. Obama went to a tiny compartment in the middle of his campaign bus and called Sen. Bayh and other contenders to tell them they weren't his choice. He then reached Sen. Biden at the dentist's office where his wife was having a root canal to give him the good news.
When the two men appeared together Saturday afternoon, Sen. Obama explained his choice by invoking the talking points that Sen. Biden's allies had pushed during the vetting process. "Joe Biden is that rare mix," Sen. Obama told the crowd. "For decades, he has brought change to Washington, but Washington hasn't changed him."
Republicans now are quickly trying to tear that logic apart. They're painting Sen. Biden as an old-style insider, with longstanding ties to trial lawyers and lobbyists and a taste for pork-barrel spending, which their nominee, Sen. John McCain, has opposed.
The pairing of the two Democratic senators against Sen. McCain carries some ironies. Sens. Biden and Obama rarely have crossed paths in the Senate, aside from Sen. Obama's presence on the Foreign Relations Committee, where Sen. Biden is chairman. Sens. Biden and McCain have worked frequently together, and have much more in common.
Each is a foreign-policy heavyweight in the Senate and has shown a special interest in Eastern European affairs. In 2005, the pair worked together on behalf of Kyrgyzstan and Moldova, according to McCain Senate records. Sen. McCain and Sen. Biden were co-authors of the McCain-Biden Kosovo Resolution in 1999 that would have authorized President Bill Clinton to use "all necessary force" to resolve the conflict.
Sen. Biden and Sen. McCain have acknowledged each other as friends and on Saturday, they continued to speak fondly of each other -- in between attacks. "I've known John for 35 years, he served our country with extraordinary courage," Sen. Biden said during his introduction rally in Springfield, Ill. "I know he wants to do right by America."
At the same event, Sen. Biden nevertheless got personal, making fun of Sen. McCain's several homes -- saying that in contrast to how he and many voters sit at their kitchen table to figure out how to pay the household bills, Sen. McCain will "have to figure out which of the seven kitchen tables to sit at."
"Joe and I have been friends for many, many years, and we know each other very well," Sen. McCain told CBS News over the weekend.
There are few outward signs of Sens. Obama and Biden having been close as colleagues. They give one another scarce attention in their memoirs, "The Audacity of Hope," by Sen. Obama, and "Promises to Keep," by Sen. Biden.
While their debate exchanges early in the primary campaign were mostly friendly, Sen. Biden did draw attention to Sen. Obama's limited foreign-policy credentials, in comments which Republicans have been swift to repeat. Sen. Biden characterized the junior senator as a "Johnny-come-lately" on Afghanistan, and praised him for having adopted Sen. Biden's own ideas.
In another quote from the primary race quickly picked up by the McCain campaign for a national commercial, Sen. Biden called Sen. Obama "not ready" for the presidency -- exactly the theme the McCain camp increasingly has been striking.
Sen. Biden proved to be a vocal campaigner for Sen. Obama once he became the party's presumptive nominee in June. When Republicans criticized Sen. Obama last month for not holding any hearings on Afghanistan in his Foreign Relations subcommittee on the region, Sen. Biden stepped in to defend his colleague, saying that as chairman of the full committee, he had made a policy of holding those hearings himself.
Both men usually have voted the same way on issues which have divided Senate Democrats in the last two Congresses: in favor of immigration reform, against the Central American Free Trade Agreement and for tougher ethics rules. But in the past year they have differed over key votes on whether to withhold funding for the war in Iraq -- Sen. Obama voted against funding, Sen. Biden voted for it -- and the renewal of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which Sen. Obama eventually supported, and Sen. Biden remains against.
Sen. Obama riled many in the left of the Democratic party in July by voting for the renewal of FISA, which authorized the National Security Agency's secret wiretapping program and included immunity for participating telephone companies. Ahead of the vote on the bill, Sen. Biden issued a press release attacking Sen. John McCain for his support of the program, though many Democrats also voted for it. In the release, he said, "Like President Bush, Sen. McCain is presenting the American people with a false choice: national security or civil liberties. We need a president who understands that we can have both."
Sen. Biden may provide his old friend Sen. McCain more fodder for attacks. Sen. Biden is one of the least wealthy members of the Senate and proudly cites his working-class roots. But he's also collected $6.5 million in campaign contributions from lobbyists, lawyers and law firms since 1989, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. That includes $214,000 from executives of former credit-card giant MBNA, now a unit of Bank of America Corp., the center said. He's been a strong supporter of the home-state bank, backing a tough bankruptcy bill in 2005 that was one of MBNA's top legislative priorities. Mr. Obama opposed the bill, and criticizes Mr. McCain's support for it.
Vetting the Candidates
None of Sen. Biden's vulnerabilities was likely a surprise to the Obama team, which conducted a thorough vetting of the candidates. The team, led by Caroline Kennedy and ex-Justice Department official Eric Holder, initially cast a wide net, but in the end focused more on Sens. Biden and Bayh and Gov. Kaine.
Sen. Obama sought private meetings with the three. Sen. Biden's turn came in Minneapolis in early August, when Sen. Obama was there for a $1,000 a person fund-raiser. He had Sen. Biden sneak into a downtown hotel through the back door.
In the meeting, Sen. Biden argued that his longtime experience of working between the legislative and executive branches would "help carry out Obama's agenda of change in a broken Washington," one aide said. He also talked about his family's modest roots in Scranton.
Four days later, Sen. Obama left for his Hawaii vacation -- just as the Russian-Georgian fighting erupted. When Sen. Biden was invited by the Georgian president to visit and offer advice, "we welcomed his going," one Obama aide said. "That was fortuitously well-timed," one Biden adviser said.
To this point in mid-August, at least as much speculation was focused on Sen. Bayh and Gov. Kaine as on Sen. Biden. But when TV footage began airing that showed Sen. Biden with Georgia President Mikheil Saakashvili, Sen. Bayh confided to a friend that this hurt his chances to become the vice-presidential pick.
In Hawaii, Sen. Obama was leaning toward Sen. Biden, though aides say the crisis in Georgia wasn't decisive. They say Sen. Obama was equally drawn to Sen. Biden's compelling personal story of highs and lows.
Within weeks of his election in 1972, Sen. Biden's wife and daughter were killed in a car crash, and his two sons injured. He was sworn into office from the hospital room of his sons, both of whom have made a complete recovery. He has since remarried and had a daughter.
Once Sen. Obama had settled in his own mind on Sen. Biden, "he wanted to see how the decision sat with him" for a while, an aide says. Meanwhile the guessing game was in full swing. Sen. Obama's first stop after his Hawaiian vacation was an event where both he and Sen. McCain were asked questions by pastor Rick Warren, the nationally popular evangelical minister and author. The event showed that Sen. Obama's cool and cerebral style could be trumped by Sen. McCain's forceful directness.
For example, when asked, "At what point does a baby have human rights?" Sen. Obama responded, "That's above my pay grade" and then talked about "theological perspective," "scientific perspective" and "specificity." Sen. McCain's immediate answer: "At the moment of conception." Some Biden advisers called friends in the Obama camp, arguing that Sen. Biden, a Roman Catholic and more senior than Sen. McCain in the Senate, could be an effective attack dog against Sen. McCain on a range of issues.
When they were quizzed in return about Sen. Biden's proclivity to make gaffes and be verbose, a Biden adviser had a ready comeback. "After having a president for eight years who can't go beyond talking points, it's a good thing that Biden can dig into the issues, even if he occasionally goes overboard," he said.
'Joe Being Joe'
When Sen. Biden returned to the U.S. from his overseas trip to Georgia and faced reporters waiting on his driveway, he called out from his car, "I'm not the one." That gave some Bayh supporters hope until an email was circulated among Bayh supporters, "That's just Joe being Joe, being funny."
On Thursday, Sen. Obama made campaign appearances in Virginia with Gov. Kaine, then still considered to be in the running. The two men didn't discuss his decision, an aide said.
Later that afternoon on his private campaign bus, Sen. Obama told his aides, "It's time to make some phone calls." After receiving his, Sen. Biden informed his family, who began gathering -- in the glare of TV lights -- at his Wilmington, Del., home. He waited until the next evening to tell his senior advisers that he needed their help to write a speech -- to accept Sen. Obama's offer to become his running mate.