By Michael Saul and David Saltonstall
Daily News Staff Writers
Hey, Barack, now even your running mate thinks Hillary Clinton may have been a better choice for veep.
Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden veered wildly off message Wednesday, telling a town hall meeting in New Hampshire that the former First Lady might have been a smarter pick than him for No. 2.
"Hillary Clinton is as qualified or more qualified than I am to be vice president of the United States of America - let's get that straight," Biden said testily after a voter said he was "very pleased" that Democratic nominee Barack Obama had chosen him instead of Clinton.
"She is qualified to be President of the United States of America, she's easily qualified to be vice president of the United States of America and, quite frankly, it might have been a better pick than me," the Delaware senator added forcefully. "I mean that sincerely, she is first- rate."
Biden did not elaborate, and it was unclear if he was speaking strategically, modestly or just rising to the defense of Clinton, whom he called "a truly close personal friend."
It didn't matter to GOPer John McCain's aides. They eagerly seized on the comment as a new way to mock Obama while rekindling hurt feelings among some Democrats over Clinton's rejection from the ticket.
"It's very interesting that when it comes down to Barack Obama's biggest decision of the presidential election in choosing a vice president, the man that he selects says that he himself was the wrong choice, and that Hillary Clinton would have been a better fit," said Ben Porritt, a spokesman for GOP veep nominee Sarah Palin.
Biden's odd nod to Clinton could not have come at a worse time for the Democrats, who have been struggling to hang on to Clinton-leaning voters after McCain picked Palin to be the GOP's first female veep candidate in history.
One Washington Post/ABC News poll this week showed white women flocking to McCain by a margin of 53% to 41% - a reversal of the 50%-to-42% edge Obama held among the same group just three weeks ago.
Biden's comments are also sure to fuel his reputation as a loose cannon whose mouth gets him into trouble.
During his own bid for the presidency last year, he raised eyebrows when he referred to Obama as the first African-American candidate who is "articulate and bright and clean."
More recently, Republicans have mocked him for mistakenly telling audiences that he is running for President, not vice president.
Clinton aides last night did not respond to inquiries from the Daily News about Biden's comments.
Aides to Biden and Obama also did not return calls immediately, although Obama last night defended his choice of Biden when asked if he would have chosen differently if he knew McCain was going to pick a woman.
"The way I thought about it was, 'Who's going to help me govern?'" Obama told "Late Show" funnyman David Letterman. "I think that nobody can do that better than Joe Biden."