WASHINGTON - Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., who announced his presidential candidacy yesterday with the hope he could ride his foreign-policy expertise into contention for the Democratic nomination, instead spent the day struggling to explain his description of Sen. Barack Obama, a fellow candidate, as "the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy."
The remark, published yesterday in the New York Observer, left Biden's campaign struggling to survive its first hours and injected race more directly into the presidential contest. The day ended, appropriately enough for the way politics is practiced now, with Biden explaining himself to Jon Stewart on Comedy Central's The Daily Show.
In an afternoon conference call with reporters that had been intended to announce his candidacy, Biden, of Delaware, said he had been "quoted accurately." He volunteered that he had called Obama to express regret that his remarks had been taken "out of context," and that Obama had assured him he had nothing to explain.
"Barack Obama is probably the most exciting candidate that the Democratic or Republican Party has produced, at least since I've been around," he said. "Call Sen. Obama. He knew what I meant by it. The idea was very straightforward and simple. This guy is something brand new that nobody has seen before."
Asked about Biden's comments, Obama said in an interview: "I didn't take it personally and I don't think he intended to offend." Obama added: "But the way he constructed the statement was probably a little unfortunate."
Later in the day, with Biden coming under fire from some black leaders, Obama, of Illinois, issued a statement that approached a condemnation. "I didn't take Sen. Biden's comments personally, but obviously they were historically inaccurate," he said in a statement. "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."
For Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, it was an inauspicious beginning to his first presidential campaign since 1988, when he dropped out after acknowledging using without attribution portions of a speech from a British politician. By the end of the day, Democrats were asking only half-jokingly whether Biden might be remembered for having the shortest-lived presidential campaign in the history of the Republic.
Shortly after 6 p.m., Biden issued a written statement. "I deeply regret any offense my remark in the New York Observer might have caused anyone," he said. "That was not my intent, and I expressed that to Sen. Obama."
Under questioning from reporters at his announcement conference call, Biden was pressed on what he meant in his description of Obama, particularly in his use of the word clean.
"He understood exactly what I meant," Biden said. "And I have no doubt that Jesse Jackson and every other black leader - Al Sharpton and the rest - will know exactly what I meant."
Biden's assurances notwithstanding, both Jackson and Sharpton - African Americans who have run for president - said they had no idea what the senator had meant. Both suggested they felt at least a little offended by the remarks.
Jackson described Biden's remarks to the Observer, which also included critical statements about the positions taken on Iraq by two of his Democratic opponents - Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina - as "blabbering bluster."
Sharpton said that when Biden called him to apologize, he started off the conversation reassuring the senator about his hygienic practices.
"I told him I take a bath every day," Sharpton said. "I told him I took one before I came to see him in his office in Washington last week."
Sharpton said he thought Biden had displayed what he called a cultural bias. "What is he saying - that Shirley Chisholm, Jesse and I - who probably made the best-received speeches at the Democratic conventions - were not articulate?"
"What got me in trouble was using the world clean," Biden told Stewart on Comedy Central. "I should have said fresh. What I meant was he's got new ideas."