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Biden's campaign trail goes where Obama's won't

By Paul Steinhauser, CNN Political Editor
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed May 16, 2012
Pundits say Vice President Joe Biden is a valuable asset for the Obama campaign in Ohio.
Pundits say Vice President Joe Biden is a valuable asset for the Obama campaign in Ohio.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Eastern Ohio wasn't a friendly region for Obama in 2008
  • Beck: Biden can connect with voters there, he's an old-school Democrat
  • Hillary Clinton took eastern and southeast Ohio in the 2008 primary
  • Biden hails from Scranton, Pennsylvania, which has also seen hard times

(CNN) -- Vice President Joe Biden kicks off a two-day swing Wednesday through the eastern edge of the must-win battleground state of Ohio, an area that President Barack Obama is unlikely to visit this election year.

And while the vice president apologized to the president last week for seemingly jumping the gun on the issue of same-sex marriage, this trip is an illustration of just how valuable Biden is for Obama as he bids for a second term in the White House.

"As much as political insiders joke about Joe Biden, he's indispensable to the Obama ticket," says Republican strategist and CNN contributor Alex Castellanos.

According to the Obama re-election campaign, the vice president will travel to Ohio's Mahoning and Ohio valleys "to highlight the impact of President Obama's efforts to strengthen the region's manufacturing and auto industries, as well as bolster middle-class security for Ohio's workers."

The campaign says Biden will speak at an advanced manufacturing facility in Youngstown and at a Chevrolet dealership in Martins Ferry.

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The general manger of the dealership, Joe Staffilino II, says he's "really surprised" that the vice president is dropping by and that people in the area "are real excited about the visit."

It's not an area friendly to Obama, said Paul Beck, professor of political science at The Ohio State University.

"These are areas of traditional Democratic strength, steel working areas, areas with a lot of working class Democrats from the old days. President Obama has not played well there," Beck explained.

Obama was soundly defeated by then-Sen. Hillary Clinton in southeast and eastern Ohio in the Democratic presidential primary in March 2008, and while he won the state by five points over Sen. John McCain in the general election that November, he didn't perform as well in the eastern edge of the state.

"Part of the problem is that these tend to be more conservative Democrats. For some of them his race may be an issue, probably not among the younger ones but among some of the older voters. These tend to be depressed areas, with a lot of job loss over the past couple of decades. There are deeply entrenched pockets of unemployment and economic distress," Beck added.

Biden grew up in Scranton, in neighboring Pennsylvania, an area that's also witnessed tough times in the past few decades.

"These are places where I think Joe Biden has particular appeal, as a kind of traditional Democrat of the old school. He comes from a part of Pennsylvania that's very much like the eastern part of Ohio. I think he can really connect with voters there in a way which President Obama cannot," Beck said.

The president's been to Ohio 21 times since taking office. But only two of those trips took him through the state's eastern edge.

But it's not just Obama -- presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney was edged out by former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania in much of the region in the March GOP primary. Santorum gave his primary night speech in the Ohio River valley city of Steubenville.

Beck predicted that Romney will likely not "be able to connect with (eastern Ohio voters) well either" ahead of the November election.

Which is why Biden may come in so handy in blue-collar areas in eastern Ohio, western and central Pennsylvania, and in parts of Michigan.

"His working-class honesty cuts through all the political bull in Washington. He grounds Obama in the real world. In blue-collar swing states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, Joe Biden is a tremendous asset to Obama who, at times, makes voters feel like he is president of the elite, for the elite, and by the elite," added Castellanos, who was a top media adviser for Romney's 2008 nomination bid, but who stayed neutral in this year's battle for the GOP nomination.

Democratic strategist and CNN contributor Paul Begala agrees.

"Unlike Mitt Romney, Joe Biden can talk to middle-class people without an interpreter. Even though he's traveled the globe and is one of the most powerful people in the world, he's still Joe -- a middle-class guy from Scranton.

"Biden's ability to connect with working families is one of the Obama campaign's greatest assets. I bet they'll be seeing a lot of him in the next six months," said Begala, who was a top adviser in the Clinton White House and who now is a senior adviser to Priorities USA, the pro-Obama super PAC.

But some Republicans disagree about Biden's value to the Democratic ticket. "It speaks to President Obama's vulnerability that the campaign has to rely on Vice President Biden to campaign in key states like Ohio because Obama can't identify with voters. Between his infamous gaffes and his liberal positions on the free market and our nation's debt, having Biden on the stump carries its own set of risks," Republican National Committee press secretary Kirsten Kukowski told CNN.

Biden's been in the spotlight recently for his comments a week and a half ago on NBC's "Meet the Press," that he was "absolutely comfortable" with legal same-sex marriages, a position that the president had yet to take. Obama was forced to speed up his timetable on the issue and come out with his own comments approving the unions three days later.

Some political pundits said that Biden was a liability to the president, while others pointed to the argument that running mates rarely matter in the race for the White House.

"Sure, people vote for the top of the ticket, but this election will likely turn on who can build an economy for the middle class," Begala said. "If that's the question, Biden is a big part of the answer."

"If I were Biden, I would keep Obama on my ticket," Castellanos said.

CNN's Steve Brusk contributed to this report

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