Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware yesterday made it official that he will seek the Democratic presidential nomination, but stumbled out of the gate with a memorable gaffe that became the focus of his day.
In a critique of the Democratic field, he said of Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois: “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” he told the New York Observer, a weekly. “I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”
The senator, serving his sixth term, tried to highlight his strong foreign-policy credentials, saying he is best equipped to fix the situation in Iraq.
Taking the remark as a slur against Mr. Obama or other black men who have sought the presidency is taking it “totally out of context,” Mr. Biden told reporters after the remark was posted on the Drudge Report, a popular Internet site. He said he called Mr. Obama to explain the context. He issued a formal statement saying he deeply regretted if anyone was offended.
“He understood exactly what I meant, and I have no doubt that Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton and every other black leader will know exactly what I meant,” Mr. Biden said.
Mr. Biden told the Observer interviewer that New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s plan for Iraq is “a serious mistake,” but said she “is clearly qualified to be president.” He jabbed at former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina: “I don’t think John Edwards knows what the heck he is talking about.”
Talk-show hosts and bloggers seized on the Obama comment, but they also invoked criticism from a leading liberal blogger. “Really, if we live in a just world, this will be the end of Joe Biden’s political career,” read a post on DailyKos.com “It’s clear his career has dragged on one election cycle too many.”
Mr. Biden, 64, discussed his second presidential bid on a conference call, an event sandwiched between hearings on Iraq as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a television appearance on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.”
In 1988, Mr. Biden withdrew from the presidential race before the nominating contests. Now, he polls in the single digits, well below the Democratic front-runner, Mrs. Clinton, and her two top rivals, Mr. Obama and Mr. Edwards.
Reporters on the conference call peppered Mr. Biden with questions about the Obama remarks, and he said the “clean” word probably came from an old saying his mother used: “Clean as a whistle, sharp as a tack.” He described Mr. Obama as “crisp and clear.”
Mr. Obama dismissed the remarks as the Delaware senator just “being Joe.”
“He certainly didn’t intend to offend, and I’ll leave it at that,” he told reporters who asked whether Mr. Biden had apologized.
“He called me; I told him it wasn’t necessary. We have more important things to think about. We’ve got Iraq; we’ve got health care; we’ve got energy,” Mr. Obama said. “He was very gracious. I have no problem with Joe Biden.”
But later he issued another statement saying the comment was “historically inaccurate.”
“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,” he said.
Mr. Biden yesterday lavished Mr. Obama with compliments, calling him a “superstar,” the “most exciting candidate” from either party in decades and giving what sounded like several reasons why he thinks the Illinois senator should be the next president.
“He’s fresh, he’s new, he’s smart, he’s insightful,” he said. “This guy has touched the nerve and the imagination of the people of this country.” He later offered another amendment of remarks. “This is a very special guy. This is like catching lightning in a jar. That was the point of everything I was saying. I think he’s great. I think they are all great. I think I’m better.”
Even the president said nice things about Mr. Obama. Appearing on Fox News yesterday, President Bush said he is “impressed” by Mr. Obama, whom he finds “attractive” and “articulate.”
“But he’s got a long way to go to be president.”
Mr. Biden said his legislative experience — more than that of Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Obama and Mr. Edwards combined — will help him convince voters he can replace Mr. Bush.
He said the president’s foreign and domestic policies have put the nation at risk. “I make no apologies for saying I believe I am the best prepared of all the candidates,” Mr. Biden said. “President Bush will leave the next president with no margin for error.”
A lawyer and professor, Mr. Biden has become a prominent Democratic voice on Iraq policy. As the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he has held extensive hearings about the best way forward and is a chief critic of Mr. Bush’s plan to send 21,500 more troops to Iraq.
His nonbinding resolution denouncing the plan as “not in the national interest” will soon be introduced in the Senate.
Yesterday, Mr. Biden acknowledged mistakes in his first run, including accusations that he plagiarized stump speeches from other politicians, and said it was his “own fault.”
He said he has since learned to take punches. On Sunday’s “This Week,” host George Stephanopoulos asked Mr. Biden to sum up why he is running in 25 words or less. He required 45.
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