Duke politicos evaluate Obama's running mate

Bipartisan bickering over the strengths and weaknesses of Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del.-presidential hopeful Barack Obama's veep selection-has trickled down from the national Democratic and Republican parties to their respective groups on campus.

Leaders of Duke's student-run political organizations are rehashing much of the same praise and backlash toward Obama's selection dominating the national landscape, taking sides on topics ranging from Biden's more than 30 years of experience in the Capitol to his tone of speech.

Duke Democrats President Ben Bergmann, a sophomore, said Biden was a strong surrogate who will help draw more supporters to Obama's already remarkable campaign.

He also touted Biden's progressive conduct in Congress, adding that, like Obama, he has acted as an agent for change in the Senate, setting him apart from other politicians.

"I'm proud of [Biden's] experience," Bergmann said. "You can be in Washington for years and not have it be worth a damn. He's not [presidential candidate] John McCain, just sitting there in Washington."

Members of conservative student groups, however, said Biden's extended history in Washington was a liability, not an asset. They said Biden's strengths parallel many of Obama's weaknesses, and by selecting Biden as his running mate, Obama highlighted the criticisms of his own inexperience in the Senate and on foreign policy matters.

"It confirms the overarching narrative that has been discussed in the media-that Barack Obama saw a shortcoming in his own experience and qualification to be president and expects Biden to compensate for them," said junior Vikram Srinivasan, chair of Duke College Republicans.

But other student Republicans said Biden is just the person the Obama campaign needs to draw voters. Junior Natalie Figuereo, Duke College Republicans' junior class representative, said she thought Biden will be able to appeal to the white working class-a voting bloc that Obama has struggled to win over, polls indicate.

"I really think it's going to come down to the McCain pick [for his vice president]," Figuereo said. She added that she was nervous about how McCain's bid for president would fare against the Obama-Biden ticket.

As Obama's selection thrusts Biden into the national spotlight, criticisms previously levied at Biden for comments that some viewed as racially insensitive have resurfaced. While campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination in February 2007, Biden described Obama as "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." He apologized to Obama for the remark soon afterward.

Bergmann dismissed criticism that Biden's comments were racist. "Sen. Obama didn't find that insensitive and took his apology, and that's enough for me," he said.

Alex Rappaport, founder and director of Duke Students for Obama, said Biden has a tendency to speak his mind in a way that will help Obama's campaign, just as it has helped Washington politics. "He will be an attack dog for Obama-he'll go out and speak his mind, and that's a good thing because he has a lot of good opinions about these issues," he said.

Others, however, pointed to Biden's frank criticism of Obama during the caucuses as evidence that his remarks can often place him in trouble.

Junior Eric Kaufman, who is interning with the McCain campaign, said Biden has confused voters and called his credibility into question by first staunchly criticizing Obama's experience and now praising his candidacy.

"During the Democratic primary, Biden was Obama's strongest critic, even stating that Obama was not ready for the presidency," Kaufman wrote in an e-mail. "Yesterday, Biden said Obama would be one of the greatest presidents since [Abraham] Lincoln. These conflicting remarks from Biden suggest an important question: When was Biden telling the truth?"

In a highly anticipated move, Obama announced his vice presidential pick by text message and e-mail early Saturday morning, with a number of technologically savvy youth waiting eagerly for their cell phones to buzz with the news.

Although Biden's name leaked to the public before Obama texted his official message, some student leaders said it at least established greater contact between the Obama campaign and voter.

With McCain expected to announce his vice presidential choice before the Republican National Convention begins Sept. 1, many student Republicans are saying they are waiting until then to see how well the Republican ticket compares to that of their Democratic opponents.

Kaufman said one of the qualities he is looking for in McCain's running mate is an ability to attack Biden effectively during debates.

"Biden will make a formidable opponent during VP debates, and McCain will need to pick someone who can counter that," Kaufman said.


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