Posted: Oct. 25, 2007


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Even Delawareans have to pay these days if they want to see Joe Biden tricked out in his presidential trappings. Not even a press pass is good enough to get in.

Biden's campaign is planning two showy fund-raisers next month in his home state, one an exclusive affair for people who can afford it and the other a mass picnic, both with the theme of celebrating his upcoming 65th birthday and 35 years in the U.S. Senate.

It is something of a shock to consider that Biden, a Democrat elected precociously at 29, is part of the Social Security set, but there it is, every bit as curious as the segue from beamish Beatle to royal knighthood for Sir Paul.

Biden has gone from a brash, smart-alecky junior senator who talks a lot to a brash, smart-alecky senior senator who talks a lot.

Biden was born on Nov. 20, 1942. He took his Senate oath on Jan. 3, 1973, as the fifth youngest senator ever and had the staying power to become the longest-serving statewide elected official in Delaware history.

The bash for Biden opens Friday evening, Nov. 16, at the University of Delaware's Arsht Hall in Wilmington, a business-suit kind of party with tickets going for $1,000. It continues mid-day Saturday, Nov. 17, with an outing at Banning Park near Newport, with tickets at $35 a person, $65 a family or $100 for a listing in a birthday card.

Press is banned from both events. No one gets in for free. It is true that Biden needs the money -- he trails Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards, Bill Richardson and Chris Dodd in contributions -- but he also could use the coverage.

This is a guy running second in his own state to Clinton in a poll taken earlier this month by Fairleigh Dickinson University -- a distant second. It does not help voters to believe in him if he keeps his campaign out of sight.

The back-to-back festivities are the vestiges of a brainstorm some months ago from Sam Lathem, the state AFL-CIO president who is a Democratic loyalist, and Alan Levin, the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce president likely to be the Republican candidate for governor, to stage a huge "favorite son" rally for Biden. Eventually the campaign took charge to get it done.

"Folks from labor and the business community are working very hard on this with us," said Sonia Sloan, a campaign volunteer who goes back far enough with Biden to have attended his 30th birthday party in 1972, when he reached the legal age for the Senate shortly after his election.

The talk is that Biden would like to collect $500,000 to $1 million for this birthday blowout. If he reaches the higher end, it would catapult Delaware from third place to first place in contributions by state. Biden has taken in $1.8 million from New York, $826,000 from Pennsylvania and $804,000 from Delaware, out of total receipts of $8.2 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington research group that tracks campaign finance.

It is a custom that presidential candidates close their fund-raisers to all but the ticket holders. When Republicans Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney came to Delaware earlier this year, Giuliani was the only one to allow limited press coverage. (No Democratic candidate has intruded on Biden's home base.)

Still, it seems a little strange for Biden to charge at home for what he gladly gives away in any Iowa coffee shop for free.

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Nobody knows microcosmic politics the way the local elected officeholders do, so last weekend New Castle County Executive Chris Coons was dispatched by Biden's campaign to Iowa to forage for recruits among his fellow Democratic county officials.

They are just the sort who know what it takes to get people to the Iowa caucuses, which are make-or-break for Biden when they open up the presidential voting in January. He has said he needs to place among the top three or four candidates to stay in the race for the Democratic nomination.

Coons was happy to go. His mission for Biden dovetailed with another goal he has -- to work through the National Association of Counties to increase the counties' visibility and clout with the presidential field.

It did not hurt that the candidate Coons was promoting was the only one who was a county official himself. Biden spent two years on the New Castle County Council before moving to the Senate.

"Counties feel overlooked. It matters to them that Joe understands how hard land use decisions are," Coons said.

"Everybody knows who Joe Biden is, and an overwhelming number have met him. Lots of people are undecided, and they were interested to hear from someone who knew him from his home state. They typically have the strongest local network, and that's the group you want to connect with."

Coons was right at home with the county types, but not necessarily with the landscape. After all, he comes from a state with an urban-suburban-rural-coastal mix, everything but mountains -- Mount Cuba does not count -- as well as a variety of creatures from horseshoe crabs to muskrats. Iowa is not that way.

"It's like corn-corn-corn-corn-COWS-corn-corn-corn-corn-corn," Coons said.