WASHINGTON (AP) - A year from Election Day, Democrats are crafting a campaign strategy for Vice President Joe Biden that targets the big three political battlegrounds: Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida, states where Biden might be more of an asset to President Barack Obama's re-election campaign than the president himself.
The Biden plan underscores an uncomfortable reality for the Obama team. A shaky economy and sagging enthusiasm among Democrats could shrink the electoral map for Obama in 2012, forcing his campaign to depend on carrying the 67 electoral votes up for grabs in the three swing states.
Obama won all three states in 2008. But this time he faces challenges in each, particularly in Ohio and Florida, where voters elected Republican governors in the 2010 midterm elections.
The president sometimes struggles to connect with Ohio and Pennsylvania's white working-class voters, and Jewish voters who make up a core constituency for Florida Democrats and view him with skepticism.
Biden has built deep ties to both groups during his four decades in national politics, connections that could make a difference.
As a long-serving member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden cemented his reputation as an unyielding supporter of Israel, winning the respect of many in the Jewish community. And Biden's upbringing in a working class, Catholic family from Scranton, Pa., gives him a valuable political intangible: He empathizes with the struggles of blue-collar Americans because his family lived those struggles.
"Talking to blue-collar voters is perhaps his greatest attribute," said Dan Schnur, a Republican political analyst. "Obama provides the speeches, and Biden provides the blue-collar subtitles."
While Biden's campaign travel won't kick into high gear until next year, he's already been making stops in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida this fall, speaking at events focused on education, public safety and small businesses and raising campaign cash. Behind the scenes, he's working the phones with prominent Jewish groups and Catholic organizations in those states, a Democratic official said.
Biden is also targeting organized labor, speaking frequently with union leaders in Ohio ahead of last week's vote on a state law that would have curbed collective bargaining rights for public workers. Voters struck down the measure, and Biden traveled to Cleveland Tuesday to celebrate the victory with union members.
The Democratic official said the vice president will also be a frequent visitor to Iowa and New Hampshire in the coming weeks, seeking to steal some of the spotlight from the Republican presidential candidates blanketing those states ahead of the January caucus and primary.
And while Obama may have declared that he won't be commenting on the Republican presidential field until there's a nominee, Biden is following no such rules. He's calling out GOP candidates by name, and in true Biden style, he appears to be relishing in doing so.
During a speech last month to the Florida Democratic Convention, Biden singled out "Romney and Rick", criticizing former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for saying the government should let the foreclosure crisis hit rock bottom, and hammering Texas Gov. Rick Perry's assertion that he would send U.S. troops into Mexico.
And he took on the full GOP field during an October fundraiser in New Hampshire, saying "There is no fundamental difference among all the Republican candidates."
Democratic officials said Biden will follow in the long-standing tradition of vice presidents playing the role of attack dog, allowing Obama to stay out of the fray and appear more focused on governing than campaigning.
The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss internal strategy. The Obama campaign has been reluctant to publically define Biden's role in the re-election bid this early in the run, though campaign manager Jim Messina did say the vice president would deliver an economic message to appeal for support.
"You'll see him in communities across the country next year laying out the choice we face: restoring economic security for the middle class or returning to the same policies that led to our economic challenges," Messina said.
Democrats say Biden will campaign for House candidates in swing states as the party tries to recapture some of the seats in Congress lost during the 2010 midterms.
And here again, the vice president's efforts in politically crucial Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida could be most important. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is targeting 12 districts in those states that Obama and Biden carried in the 2008 presidential race but are represented by Republican representatives.
New York Rep. Steve Israel, who chairs the committee, said he believes Biden could be a "game-changer" in those districts.
"All he has to do is ask voters, has the Republican strategy of no worked for you?" Israel said.
Israel met with Obama and Biden at the White House earlier this month to discuss, among other things, their role in congressional campaigns. While Israel said he hopes Obama will actively campaign for Democratic House candidates, he said "the vice president has already volunteered."
Julie Pace can be reached at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC.
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