VIRGINIA BEACH, Virginia (Reuters) - Joe Biden has a woman problem. Her name is Sarah Palin.
Whether on the campaign trail or in their October 2 debate, the Democrats’ candidate for vice president must walk a fine line between attacking Palin, his Republican rival, and chasing away women voters.
“Joe Biden has to be careful, and he knows it,” an aide said.
It’s a special challenge for Biden, a seasoned debater and a respected voice on foreign policy who has built a reputation in the rough-and-tumble of U.S. politics for displaying both charm and aggression.
As Democrat Barack Obama’s running mate, Biden has drawn cheers and laughter at campaign stops ripping into John McCain, the Republican Arizona senator running for president with Palin, Alaska’s governor.
For 35 years a Delaware senator, Biden, 65, has prefaced his cutting remarks with “my good friend, John.”
He speaks softly of Palin, 44, knowing there could be a backlash from women if he doesn’t temper his bark and bite in dealing with the first-term governor who is also the first woman on a national Republican ticket.
Fielding questions from a campaign crowd of several hundred people in Virginia Beach, Virginia, on Thursday, Biden was asked by a woman if he would debate Palin as if she were a man.
“I don’t engage in personal attacks,” Biden said. “I will take issue with her ideas.”
Academics say that’s a wise approach.
Paul Light of New York University’s Center for the Study of Congress said: “He can’t attack her. He should attack McCain -- and make Palin defend McCain.”
“Biden must show he’s more prepared to be vice president without appearing to belittle her age or gender,” said Shirley Anne Warshaw, a presidential scholar at Gettysburg College. “You don’t want him saying, ‘Now honey.’”
In a speech to the Republican National Convention on Wednesday, the former high school basketball star, beauty queen, TV sportscaster, small-town mayor and self-described “hockey mom,” came out swinging against Biden and his running mate, Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, as well as the news media.
“I’ve learned quickly, these past few days, that if you’re not a member in good standing of the Washington elite, then some in the media consider a candidate unqualified,” Palin told cheering Republicans.
At his event in Virginia Beach, Biden said Palin “delivered an incredible speech.”
“But the thing that I was most impressed by -- beyond her speech, and how competent she was -- was what she didn’t say,” Biden said. Specifically he said she failed to explain what she and McCain would do about such basics as health care, education and the plight of the middle class.
Vice presidential candidates have traditionally served as attack dogs, allowing their running mates to remain above the fray.
It can get rough, especially in debates. Presidential candidates meet three times; their running mates get only one crack at each other.
In a 1988 debate, Democratic vice presidential nominee Democrat Lloyd Bentsen clobbered rival Dan Quayle. After Quayle appeared to liken himself to President John Kennedy, Bentsen said: “Senator, John Kennedy was a friend of mine ... you are no John Kennedy.”
In 1984, President George W. Bush’s father debated Democratic Rep. Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman to run on a major-party ticket. At one point, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush started his answer, “Let me help you with the difference, Mrs. Ferraro, between Iran and the embassy in Lebanon.”
Ferraro seethed and then responded: “Let me say, first of all, that I almost resent, Vice President Bush, your patronizing attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy.” The audience interrupted with loud applause.
Neither Bentsen nor Ferraro went on to be vice president despite their memorable performances. Vice presidential candidates rarely determine an election outcome because Americans traditionally focus on the top of the ticket.
Women voters have been especially sensitive this year following Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton’s failure in a bid against Obama which, if elected, would have made her the first U.S. woman president.
McCain’s surprise selection of Palin was seen as an effort to attract Clinton backers disenchanted with Obama and his decision to shun Clinton as his running mate.
Biden tells campaign crowds that Palin deserves respect but that voters must know more about her to weigh her qualifications.
“The only thing that I have to find out and you have to find out is what are her views,” Biden told a crowd in Sarasota, Florida, on Wednesday.
Even with all the debate skills Biden can muster, Palin will be a tough opponent, his campaign said.
“She has a compelling life story. She gives a hell of a speech. Her communication skills made her popular in Alaska,” Biden’s spokesman David Wade said.
Expect Biden to be relatively restrained when he steps on stage with Palin next month.
“Attack dogs can be trained and Biden has to be well trained in any debate with Palin,” said James Thurber of American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies. “It’d be easy for Biden to be humorously sarcastic with this Palin pick. But there would be a negative reaction.”
Editing by Howard Goller
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