When I asked the security guard stationed in the upper reaches of the Sun Dome on the campus of Tampa’s University of Southern Florida (home of the Bulls) how many people were on hand, he smiled and said, “I don't know, but a lot more than they expected. That's why this section is open.”

From where I was standing up in the nosebleeds, Joe Biden didn't look like much more than a crisp, dark suit with a silver topping. But as he bounded up to the podium, more athletically than he has a right to do, Biden was greeted like a rock star by the mix of students and citizens on hand for his rally the morning after Barack Obama and John McCain had their second debate.

Biden seemed energized by the setting and the timing of the whistle stop. Regarding last night’s debate, he said, “I think people are looking for a steady hand, leadership and optimism, not an angry man lurching from one position to another.” The public’s general reaction to the debate would seem to bear this out.

He also mentioned his recent showdown with Sarah Palin, who held a rally of her own in the Tampa – Saint Petersburg area earlier in the week. “I had a debate with Sarah Palin. At least I think it was a debate,” joked Biden. As for the three campaign debates so far, he said, “If this were best of five, it would be over.”

But it was the economy that was on people’s minds and Biden, who is able to infuse his speeches with just the right amount of passion, connected the economic problems that seem potentially catastrophic right now to a larger ethical and moral issue.

“This is about dignity, respect and fairness,” said Biden. “This is about whether you can look your wife in the eyes and say ‘everything’s going to be okay.’”

This seemed to resonate with the people in attendance – many of whom seemed to be that mythical, white, working-class male – at the most basic level, addressing their real fears instead of the phony ones levied by the McCain-Palin campaign.

“This is beyond disappointing, this is wrong,” said Biden of Palin’s sickening attempts lately to tag Obama as some kind of terrorist sympathizer (see Palin Power Girls post). “But Obama knows this election isn’t about him, it’s about you.” Now matter how many times they use it, that one still gets the butts out of their seats.

When he told the audience of 5000 or so that it is still possible to determine a safe and hopeful future for Americans, to recapture the country’s greatness after the travesties of the past eight years, the crowd erupted into chants of “Yes we can! Yes we can!”

Biden is an interesting and strangely charismatic guy in such a setting. He has an ability to articulate big ideas and policy minutia with almost no drop-off in pitch. How often do you get to hear someone take on the intellectual honesty of an opponent and bring the entire audience along with him?

But Biden deftly did such, showing how the McCain-Palin shenanigans are the result of a fundamental intellectually dishonesty that puts them in the position of having to deny what is plain as day: “That today is the final verdict on an entire flawed policy,” as Biden put it.

Instead of acknowledging that, which would be acknowledging the fundamental wrongness of their ideology, Biden said the McCain campaign is resorting to the last refuge of scoundrels – fear mongering.

But the fear that they’re pushing felt, at least inside the Sun Dome, like a played out trick. It isn’t the fear that seems to be consuming everyday Americans, who are worried about their jobs, healthcare, ability to buy groceries and whether or not there’s a future worth embracing. Not so much about whether Bill Ayers once sat on the same community board as Obama.

There’s a subtext to this election that Biden seems the most ready to embrace. He skirted its edges during his speech as USF, but didn’t quite give it a name. He suggested to the crowd, using McCain’s healthcare plan as a point of departure (which mind-bogglingly wants to do to healthcare what deregulation did to banking), that the days of trickle down and just get government out of the way are over. Our government, he reminded the crowd, is at its best when it’s ensuring fairness, when it’s mitigating against the rapaciousness of unfettered capitalism and free markets and the powerful — a rapaciousness that’s put us on the brink of an economic and societal disaster.

The subtext is that this is a Democratic ticket and an election that’s ready to embrace a cultural shift, to return to traditional Democratic values. The values that have been slandered as liberal, or even socialism, by Republicans for about 30 years now. He didn’t step up and say I’m proud to be a liberal! But it was there in the undertones and could be seen reflected back in the visceral reflexes of the marginalized working-class men and women in this audience who jumped out of their seats when Biden hit upon the basic idea that we can have a more just and equitable society than the one we’ve had for a long time now. And it was there in faces of the students who lit up at the idea of change – not just from the past eight years, but from the culture of fear and division propagated for so long now.

So, folks, if a fair tax system that allows us to invest in the commonwealth via public educations, public transportation, universal healthcare, fair wages (instead of pillaging from the top) and a safety net that feeds, clothes, shelters and provides basic healthcare to the needy is what you’d call liberal or socialism, I suggest you start saying those words out loud. Practice at home to yourself if you must. Get used to it. Or just call in what we used to: the Democratic Party. Those others that are always in need could very well be your friends and neighbors, or you, any day now.

LA Weekly