WASHINGTON — Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. abandoned his quest for the Democratic presidential nomination Wednesday, blaming the "exaggerated shadow" of mistakes that he complained had begun "to obscure the essence of my candidacy."
His wife, Jill, and his sister and campaign manager, Valerie Owens, who fought back tears, were at his side in a Senate hearing room as the 44-year-old Biden made an even-tempered but emotional farewell to the campaign.
Displaying the oratorical flair that had distinguished his candidacy, Biden said that, although events had left him little choice but to withdraw, he had reached the decision with "incredible reluctance" and with anger at himself "for having put myself in this position of making this choice."
Biden made his announcement just before returning to confirmation hearings for controversial Supreme Court nominee Robert H. Bork, of which he is chairman--a position that Biden's supporters had hoped would vault him into the forefront of the presidential race.
Those hopes were shattered by disclosures within the last two weeks that Biden had often borrowed speech rhetoric from other politicians at home and abroad, had plagiarized parts of a law school paper and had misrepresented his academic record.
Biden's departure is unlikely to have great impact on the competition among the remaining six Democratic presidential candidates. Because the Delaware senator so far had not built significant support in the electorate, he was generally lumped together in the second tier of contenders behind the two regarded as having mounted the strongest campaigns thus far, Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis and Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt.
Issue of Character
But his departure will strongly underline the significance of personal character in this campaign. That is the issue over which Biden stumbled and which four months ago turned Democratic front-runner Gary Hart into a political dropout.
Democratic Rep. Patricia Schroeder of Colorado, who will announce Monday whether she will enter the presidential race, called Biden's announcement "one more down note" in the campaign. "I think we all get tarnished by that type of news," she said. "If you run for the public trust, it's incumbent that you act in the public interest."
As Hart's experience demonstrated, issues that raise questions about a candidate's character and temperament can quickly grow into serious problems, no matter how strong a campaign has been.
In his 10-minute withdrawal statement, Biden generally avoided the peevish tone that dominated Hart's farewell, when he denounced the political system for its excessive focus on personality.
Biden, obviously exercising self-restraint, frequently flashed the tight smile that in the past has been the precursor to a show of temper. But there was no such outburst.
In his strongest complaint, he said that he was frustrated by "the environment of presidential politics that makes it so difficult for the American people to measure the whole of Joe Biden and not just the misstatements that I have made."
He cast his decision as a sacrifice of his presidential campaign in order to honor his commitment to defeating the Bork nomination.
"I have been here long enough to know that, when the tide starts to roll and things start to move," Biden said, "it requires all of one's time, energy and concentration to put it back on track." He said he needed all the energy and time he could muster in the fight against Bork, whose appointment he argued would cause harm to court and country.
"There will be many opportunities for me to run for President again," he said, but not so many to influence the shaping of the court.
Staff May Break Up
Members of Biden's staff are esteemed for their experience in presidential campaigns, but it was not clear which of the other candidates would be able to recruit them. "We'll probably all go in different directions," said William Daley, Biden's national political director and son of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago.
In the end, Biden's chief legacy may be as an example of the emphasis on character in this campaign.
The prominence of this concern arises in part from the lack of great ideological or substantive differences among the current crop of Democratic candidates, all of whom have sought to shift to the center in the wake of their party's two consecutive landslide defeats in presidential elections.
Also contributing, many believe, has been the Iran- contra scandal, which, because it has been widely interpreted as reflecting flaws in President Reagan's leadership style rather than his policies, has intensified stress on the so-called character issue.