SPRINGFIELD, Ill. | Sen. Barack Obama returned Saturday to the spot where he began his improbable presidential run to present his newly picked running mate, introducing Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware as a man with “a distinguished record and a fundamental decency.”
“Joe Biden is that rare mix,” the Illinois Democrat said. “For decades, he has brought change to Washington, but Washington hasn’t changed him. He’s an expert on foreign policy whose heart and values are rooted firmly in the middle class.”
He touted Mr. Biden’s blue-collar upbringing in an Irish Catholic family in Scranton, Pa., a narrative that will be repeated regularly as the campaign reaches out to voters in the swing state of Pennsylvania, and to Catholics and working-class voters who have been reluctant to back Mr. Obama.
Mr. Obama also touted his running mate’s practice of commuting daily by train between Washington and Delaware as proof of his not having been captured by his 35 years in the Senate.
Mr. Biden, who is not wealthy by the standards of U.S. senators, picked up the economic-populist theme in his speech, painting presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain as so out of touch with ordinary people that he’d have to “figure out which of the seven kitchen tables to sit at” when considering his economic future.
The Delaware senator spoke of Mr. Obama in reverential terms as having “something.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, I know I’m told I talk too colloquially, but there’s something about this guy,” he said, gesturing with his thumb to Mr. Obama, who was sitting behind him. “There’s something about Barack Obama that allows him to bring people together like no one I have worked with and seen. There’s something about Barack Obama that makes people understand if they make compromises, they can make things better.”
The choice of Mr. Biden, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and just back from a trip to war-torn Georgia, most notably added national security and Washington experience to the Democratic ticket, but it also underscored Republican criticism that Mr. Obama is untested and not ready for the presidency.
As Mr. Obama presented his running mate, he called him “the next president,” before correcting himself to say, “the next vice president of the United States.”
The McCain campaign promptly called the error a “Freudian slip” and said it echoed criticisms Mr. Biden had made of Mr. Obama during his own unsuccessful 2008 Democratic presidential bid.
“Barack Obama sounded as though he turned over the top spot on the ticket today to his new mentor, when he introduced Joe Biden as the next president,” McCain campaign spokesman Ben Porritt said. “The reality is that nothing has changed since Joe Biden first made his assessment that Barack Obama is not ready to lead. He wasn’t ready then, and he isn’t ready now.”
The Obama campaign declined to comment on the criticism.
Mr. Obama, addressing a crowd of thousands in front of the historic Statehouse building where 19 months ago he announced his bid for president, said his running mate was “uniquely suited to be my partner as we work to put our country back on track.”
“Joe Biden is what so many others pretend to be: a statesman with sound judgment who doesn’t have to hide behind bluster to keep America strong,” Mr. Obama said. “Joe won’t just make a good vice president. He will make a great one.”
Mr. Biden, who as an early candidate for the presidential nomination criticized Mr. Obama’s lack of experience, said he had come to respect and admire Mr. Obama even as he lost faith in his longtime friend and colleague, Mr. McCain.
“Barack has the vision, and what you can’t forget … he also has the courage, the courage to make this a better place,” Mr. Biden said, adding that Mr. Obama was a “clear-eyed pragmatist who will get the job done.”
Mr. Biden, who also sought the White House in 1988, was elected to the Senate at the age of 29 in 1972, only turning the legally required 30 between the election and his taking office.
In selecting Mr. Biden, Mr. Obama passed over former first lady Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, his tenacious rival across months of primaries and caucuses.
Even so, Mr. Obama has gone to great lengths to gain the confidence of her primary voters, agreeing to allow her name to be placed in nomination at the convention and permitting a roll-call vote that threatens to expose lingering divisions.
Fulfilling the vice-presidential nominee’s traditional role as campaign attack dog, Mr. Biden said Mr. McCain “gave in to the right wing of his party and yielded to the very Swift Boat politics that he once so deplored.”
He also said Mr. McCain blindly followed the economic, tax and Iraq war policies of President Bush and “signed on to Bush’s scheme of privatizing Social Security.”
“You can’t change America when you supported George Bush’s policies 95 percent of the time,” he said. “You can’t change America when you know your first four years as president will look exactly like the last eight years of George Bush’s presidency.”
In recent weeks, Mr. Obama’s lead evaporated in most polls as the McCain campaign assailed him as a pop-culture celebrity who is not ready to be commander in chief. The race is now a statistical tie.
The McCain campaign used Mr. Biden’s selection to remind voters of what they characterize as an experience deficit at the top of the Democratic ticket.
Within hours of the announcement, which the campaign made by text message at about 3 a.m. Saturday, the McCain campaign put out a TV ad that featured a video clip of Mr. Biden saying Mr. Obama is not ready to be president.
In the footage from a Democratic primary debate, ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos asks Mr. Biden: “You were asked, ‘Is he ready?’ You said, ‘I think he can be ready but right now, I don’t believe he is. The presidency is not something that lends itself to on-the-job training.’”
Mr. Biden responds: “I think that I stand by the statement.”
Democratic consultant Mary Anne Marsh said the pick shows that the Obama campaign thinks it needs to counter these attacks.
“Vice-presidential picks telegraph what a campaign thinks it needs. In this case, picking Biden, the Obama campaign feels it needs to have someone with foreign-policy experience and Washington experience to demonstrate that they will be able to create change by getting things done,” she said.
Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden parted ways after the Springfield rally and will not hit the campaign trail as a team until after next week’s Democratic National Convention in Denver. Mr. Obama flew home to Chicago for the night before campaigning Sunday in Wisconsin.
Mr. Biden flew to his home in Wilmington, Del. His next stop is Denver to boost the ticket during the convention, where Mr. Obama is expected to arrive Wednesday and accept the nomination Thursday. Mr. Biden is slated to address the convention Wednesday.