Biden starts White House run with controversy

(Recasts with controversy over Biden's comments on Obama)

WASHINGTON, Jan 31 (Reuters) - Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware on Wednesday joined the crowded field of Democratic contenders in the 2008 White House race but his campaign quickly ran into controversy after his comments about a potential rival, Sen. Barack Obama.

In an interview with the New York Observer published on the day he announced his candidacy, Biden made personal comments about Obama that critics said could be seen as racially insensitive.

Biden, 64, and a six-term senator, is the eighth Democrat to enter the presidential race, and often registers in the low single digits in polls behind Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Obama and 2004 vice presidential nominee John Edwards.

"I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy," Biden said in the Observer. "I mean, that's a storybook, man."

In a conference call with reporters, Biden tried to explain his remarks, and said Obama understood what he was saying.

"This is a guy who has come along in a way that's captured the imagination of the country in a way that no one else has. That was the point of everything I was saying," Biden said.

Obama said he did not take Biden's remark personally but noted that it was "obviously historically inaccurate."

In a statement, Obama, of Illinois, 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."


Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, who earned support and won eight Democratic presidential primaries in 1984 and 1988, said Biden simply made a blunder.

"It was a gaffe. It was not an intentional racial pejorative statement," Jackson told NBC News. "It could be interpreted that way. But it's not what he meant."

In the Observer interview, Biden also criticized other rivals for the Democratic nomination.

The flap overshadowed the presidential bid announcement of Biden, who opposes sending more U.S. troops to Iraq and stresses diplomatic and political initiatives to quell the violence.

"I would respectfully suggest to you that the Democrats out there understand I am the only person out there with a plan that can get us out of Iraq," Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters.

Biden sponsored a nonbinding resolution, approved last week by his committee, opposing President George W. Bush's plan to send 21,500 more U.S. troops to Iraq to help stem the unrelenting violence.

Biden, who is known for long-winded oratory, plans to campaign on Monday in New Hampshire, which holds the first primary-style election in the nominating process.

He acknowledged he would be out of the race if he did not place well after the first four state nominating contests in Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Biden admitted making mistakes in his failed 1988 bid for the Democratic nomination, when he faced charges of plagiarizing stump speeches from other politicians, including Britain's then-Labour Party leader, Neil Kinnock.