DENVER (Reuters) - U.S. Democrat Barack Obama chose seasoned experience over a fresh face in making Joseph Biden his running mate on Saturday, hoping to broaden his appeal with a pragmatic selection that props up his biggest weaknesses and signals a tougher line against rival John McCain.
Biden adds foreign policy heft and a Washington insider’s resume to a Democratic White House ticket headed by Obama, 47, a first-term Illinois senator dogged by questions about his readiness to be commander in chief.
Biden, 65, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and one of the party’s foreign policy heavyweights, could help answer criticisms from Republican McCain that Obama is too inexperienced to be trusted in the Oval Office.
The verbose six-term senator from Delaware also has a taste for political combat that some Democrats worry is lacking in Obama. The choice comes as Obama’s campaign has turned up its attacks on McCain and polls show the November 4 election tightening.
“Obama recognized the gap on national security and he recognized the need to get tougher on McCain, and he chose the guy who can most quickly help him on both counts,” said Democratic consultant Doug Schoen, a former pollster for President Bill Clinton.
Biden quickly went on the offensive at his first joint appearance with Obama in Springfield, Illinois, attacking McCain and repeatedly linking him to President George W. Bush.
“We cannot as a nation stand four more years of this,” Biden said. “You can’t change America when you supported George Bush’s policies 95 percent of the time.”
The choice also carries risks for Obama. Many Republicans — and some Democrats — wondered whether Biden would renew a long history of verbal gaffes.
Biden’s 1988 presidential bid was cut short when he plagiarized a speech by British Labour Party politician Neil Kinnock. His 2008 campaign got off to a rocky start when he described Obama as “articulate and bright and clean” — comments viewed as patronizing to a black candidate.
“His brain is an asset, but his mouth is a major liability. When the latter starts trumping the former, and it inevitably will, the Democrats will have a problem on their hands,” Republican consultant Kevin Madden said.
Obama, who rode to the nomination with a call for change in Washington and a new approach to governing, passed up young outsiders like Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine or Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and more moderate choices like Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh.
The choice of Kaine or Sebelius would have led to criticism that the Democratic ticket was too inexperienced in foreign policy and national security. Bayh had aroused opposition among liberal groups unhappy with his history of non-partisan moderation and his early support for the Iraq war.
Obama also passed up his vanquished rival from the primaries, Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, whose choice would have united the party but opened the door for more simmering tensions and drama than Obama apparently could stomach.
Biden is a blue-collar Roman Catholic — two demographic groups Obama has struggled to win over — who was a forceful debater during his failed presidential bid this year.
He proved as comfortable and adroit attacking Republicans as he was discussing the intricacies of Middle East politics, engagement with Iran and disengagement from Iraq.
“There should be no doubt that this is going to be a rough campaign from here on out, and Biden knows how to fight. I’m sure that was a strong consideration,” said Simon Rosenberg, head of the Democratic advocacy group NDN.
Biden supported the 2002 authorization of military action in Iraq but soon became a strong critic of the war, offering a plan for partition of Iraq and becoming a forceful critic of McCain’s advocacy for U.S. military involvement there.
Republicans criticized the choice and said it highlighted the inexperience Obama hoped to address. McCain’s campaign launched an ad featuring Biden criticizing Obama’s readiness for the White House during the primary campaign.
“This is an admission by Barack Obama that he doesn’t have the experience to be president. More than a vice president, he’s looking for a hand-holder or a tutor,” Madden said.
Historically, vice presidents make little difference in the outcome of presidential elections, although the last two vice presidents — Democrat Al Gore and Republican Dick Cheney — played influential roles and redefined the office.
While choices like Kaine of Virginia and Bayh of Indiana would have given Obama help in battleground states, Biden’s home state of Delaware is safely Democratic. Biden’s selection was more for political ballast than geographic help.
“It’s a good choice. My question is ‘will this guy wear well?’” Schoen said. “His manner can be a little sanctimonious and condescending. It’s an open question how it plays out.”
Editing by Xavier Briand