Barack Obama says Joe Biden is ready to step in as president. He’s not bad in the role of attack dog, either, wasting no time gnawing at GOP rival John McCain.
"He will have to figure out which of the seven kitchen tables to sit at" when considering his own economic future, Biden said — a blistering reference to McCain’s embarrassing admission, particularly during a period of financial turmoil, that he didn’t know how many homes he and his ultra-wealthy wife own.
Named Obama’s running mate before dawn Saturday, a feisty Biden appeared with the top of the ticket at an afternoon rally in Springfield, Ill.
He gave a speech filled with subtle jabs and outright punches at McCain, a sharp tone intended to send a message to nervous Democrats: Never fear, the vice presidential attack dog is here — and he’s itching for a fight.
As polls show the race tightening, Democrats increasingly have been questioning whether Obama can play the game of brass-knuckle politics against McCain. Some are fearing a repeat of 2004 when a Republican-aligned group called the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth got the best of slow-to-respond John Kerry and his soft-touch No. 2 John Edwards.
Biden, however, left no doubt he’s comfortable going for the jugular.
In one breath, he called McCain "genuinely a friend of mine" over a 35-year period. In the next, the Democrat skewered his decades-old Republican colleague and linked McCain to the unpopular President Bush at every turn.
"The American dream under eight years of Bush and McCain, that American dream is slipping away," Biden said — suggesting that McCain, too, served in the White House during that period and overlooking the times when the Arizona senator broke from his own party’s standard-bearer.
He jabbed at McCain, a Vietnam prisoner of war who is arguably the county’s most vocal supporter of the U.S. mission in Iraq, next to Bush. Said Biden: "These times require more than a good soldier. They require a wise leader. A leader who can deliver."
The Delaware senator also used McCain’s own words against him to argue that the Republican can’t change the country when he offers more of the same, though he left out details and cherry-picked quotes as he sought to make his case.
He noted that McCain voted with Bush some 90 percent of the time and read McCain quotes that he said has been "totally in agreement and support of President Bush" on "the most important issues of our day," and that "in the Bush administration we make great progress economically."
Biden also quoted McCain saying "no one has supported President Bush in Iraq more than I have."
At the same time, Biden charged, without backing up his assertions, that McCain "signed on to Bush’s scheme of privatizing Social Security" and said McCain continued to "support tax breaks for companies who ship our jobs overseas" after 3 million manufacturing jobs disappeared.
Said Biden: "You can’t change America when you know your first four years as president will look exactly like the last eight years of George Bush’s presidency."
Striking at the heart of what McCain holds most dear, his integrity and honor, Biden accused McCain of pandering to the GOP’s conservative base and engaging in negative politics he has shunned before.
"I’ve been disappointed in my friend, John McCain, who gave in to the right wing of his party and yielded to the very ‘Swift Boat’ politics that he once so deplored," Biden said. "Folks, campaigns for presidents are a test of character and leadership."
He insinuated McCain has failed that test.
Yet, Biden overlooked moves Obama has made to court the Democratic Party’s liberal base and the Illinois senator’s own recent flare-ups of hard-hitting politics.
Biden’s most direct hit came as he raised McCain’s housing gaffe, which had caused the campaign to spiral to a low point on Thursday.
Obama’s campaign seized on the remark and used it to assail McCain as out of touch. McCain’s campaign hit back by raising Obama’s ties to scandal-scarred Chicago businessman Antoin "Tony" Rezko and his role in Obama’s Chicago property.
One of the poorest members of the Senate, Biden lamented how people like him sit at the kitchen table at night worrying about how to get by in tough economic times. "That’s not a worry John McCain has to worry about. It’s a pretty hard experience. He will have to figure out which of the seven kitchen tables to sit at."
McCain spokesman Brian Rogers hit back: "Of course Senator Biden is comfortable on the attack — he spent the entire primary highlighting Barack Obama’s inexperience and failed judgment on national security."
But that was then. And this, call it Target McCain, is now.
Liz Sidoti covers the presidential campaign for The Associated Press and has covered national politics since 2003.