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Joe Biden seen as a 'sheer force of personality'

From his fiery speeches to his empty wallet, Joe Biden's former communications director talks about the man who is a "sheer force of personality."
Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., drives up to his home past the news media Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2008 in Greenville, Del.Bradley C Bower / AP

When you ask Eric Woolson to describe Joe Biden's personal weaknesses, his mind always seems to hover over one thing in particular:

"He never seemed to carry enough cash with him," said Woolson, who served as Biden's Iowa communications director during the senator's failed bid for the presidency in 1987.

"It used to drive me crazy."

These days, the bespectacled Iowan, who's now a Republican political operative, is busy planning events for the GOP convention in St. Paul.

Woolson's life has calmed down slightly after overseeing Mike Huckabee's dizzying rise to victory in the Iowa caucuses. 

But the recent frenzy of vice presidential speculation, Eric Woolson is thinking a lot about Biden.

The Delaware senator hired him as his press wrangler after Woolson left his job as a political reporter in Iowa.

Strapped for cash
It was during Woolson's newspaper days that he first discovered Biden's tendency to carry an empty wallet. As a cub reporter, Woolson once almost couldn't afford to cover the hearty burger-and-shake lunch ordered by his dime-less source.

When Woolson crossed over from press to politico, it looked like a good bet.

He jumped at the chance to work for Biden despite being ideologically more conservative than the Democratic candidate. In fact, he has since only worked on Republican campaigns, including Bush's 2000 effort in Iowa.

"There was this sense that Biden was going to be the guy to break out in Iowa," Woolson said.

"He was articulate, charming, a great one-on-one retail campaigner. Iowa was made for him."

That momentum fueled rollicking autumn trips through the Hawkeye countryside, pegged on campaign stops in towns like Sioux Falls, Spencer, and Mason City.

In each town, Biden's call for equality won applause as he wondered aloud about why he was able to attend college while generations of his ancestors weren't so lucky.

The crowd always went wild as the Irish-Catholic Scranton native crescendoed, "No! It's not because they didn't work as hard. It's because they didn't have a platform upon which to stand.''

Woolson said that in those towns, and countless others, Biden credited those words to their original writer, British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock.

"But each time he gave the speech he gave the shorter version," he added.

Biden's attribution to Kinnock's eloquence was gradually abbreviated as the story became more engrained into the stump speech that was continually repeated to enthralled crowds.

"So finally, at the debate at the [Iowa] State Fair, it was like it was his story."  In that speech, Biden finally left out the nod to Kinnock altogether.

In the days following, a rival campaign slipped reporters a videotape comparing the State Fair tape to Kinnock's verbal stylings.

Political nightmare
Woolson then found himself on the front lines of a political operative's worst nightmare. "It was a feeding frenzy," he said.

He can even rattle off the names of a half-dozen celebrated political journalists who fired off machine-gun-rounds of questioning about his boss's character, honor, and ethics.

Today, asked if the accusation of plagiarism was fair, the normally freewheeling Woolson picks his words carefully.

"I don't know," he said, adding that, after front-runner Gary Hart dropped out, the climate of the race took a turn for the sensational.

The accusation of a stolen speech turned into more — but not always well-founded — charges of plagiarism. "People were looking for a pattern," Woolson said. "I don't think he got a fair rap."

But the former aide admits that Biden's earlier tendency for impulsiveness was systemic. "There was always a lot of rushing around, and as a result making mistakes," he said. 

"The whole plagiarism thing was a result of doing stuff at the last minute, and winging it to get by."

Ultimately, in the face of a spiraling scandal, Biden decided to drop out of the race. 

'Dropping out saved his life'
Five months later, he underwent surgery for two aneurysms that brought him close to death. "Had he been flying around the country and campaigning when the aneurysm happened, he wouldn't be with us today, probably." said Woolson. "Dropping out saved his life."

Woolson isn't certain what the senator's chances are at the veep slot.

He hasn't talked to the senator in years.

In Iowa, where Woolson helped to run Huckabee's campaign, he feared that past chumminess with a Democratic candidate would hurt his Republican reputation.

But Woolson's divergent political views may have offered him a unique perspective on what he sees as Biden's greatest asset. 

Despite his apparent relish for taking on Republicans, Biden has also proved to be an engineer of compromises — a role that Woolson believes Biden would enjoy — especially in the foreign policy arena — as a vice president.

"He is a sheer force of personality. He wins peolpe over, and he looks for common ground," said Woolson. "He is always looking for what we can agree on."

Except, of course, who's paying for lunch.