With the sun on his face and his gray hair blowing dramatically in the harbor breeze last Wednesday, it was easy to believe that Sen. Joe Biden was presidential timber, standing on the dock at the Coast Guard Station on Tradd Street.
For his part, the Delaware Democrat didn't deny that he was in town to test the presidential waters in this critical early primary state. Biden, taking part in a tour of the nation's major ports to inspect their security against terrorism, told a small group of reporters gathered on the dock that even though the South Carolina primary is still two years away, he was using the opportunity to make what looked like campaign stops in Greenville and Columbia, as well as Charleston.
"I'm supposed to be more coy," he says of his presidential aspirations, "but I'm not good at being coy."
Biden reminds listeners of his close relationship with South Carolina, talking about the eulogy he gave at the late Sen. Strom Thurmond's funeral; his close working relationship with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.); and his relationship with former Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings. His home state has a history similar to South Carolina's, including the ninth largest black population in the country.
"I believe South Carolina will determine the next (Democratic) candidate" for president," says Biden.
Biden lauds Hollings for planning and funding Project Seahawk, the Charleston Harbor security plan, which integrates local, state, and federal police authority and offers the capacity to identify arriving cargo and respond effectively in a crisis.
It is the best harbor security system in the nation, he says, and should be a model for others' ports. But it is being threatened by the Bush Administration's tax cuts and budget priorities. Only last week, the Senate restored $27 million to the budget to keep Project Seahawk from being cut.
"Show me what you spend your money on and I will tell you what your priorities are," Biden says, adding that Bush's priorities are on cutting taxes for the wealthiest Americans.
Biden introduced a bill to implement all of the 9/11 Commission's recommendations, at a cost of $42 billion. Foregoing one year of Bush's tax cuts to those making over one million dollars a year would provide $43 billion — enough to implement the 9/11 Commission recommendations, with $1 million to spare.
Biden cites the Star Wars program as another example of the Bush Administration's "misplaced priorities."
The Defense Department says the next terrorist attack will be a "dirty bomb" or other nuclear device smuggled into the country through a port or across a border in a backpack. Yet, the administration, says Biden, continues to spend at least $8 billion a year on an infeasible defense against incoming missiles, the least likely form of terrorist attack.
These are only the latest jabs at Bush from Biden in his effort to gin up support among Democrats. As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he voted in January not to confirm Judge Samuel Alito to the U.S. Supreme Court, citing Alito's expansive view of presidential power and narrow view of the role of Congress.
He has repeatedly scolded Bush for his cuts to local law enforcement, at a time when National Guard call-ups of local officers is putting increased strain on local chiefs and sheriffs.
"President Bush has slashed funding for local law enforcement by more than $2 billion dollars since he took office," Biden said in February. "Local agencies throughout the nation are experiencing severe officer shortages and are being required to cut back on critical crime and terrorism prevention programs."
Last week, Biden also talked about a new system of container inspection in international posts, using gamma rays and X rays. All containers entering U.S. ports could be inspected quickly and thoroughly with this technology, not the 2 or 3 percent that are currently being inspected.
Ideally, inspections of containers would be made in foreign ports before cargo arrives in the U.S., says Biden, but American ports should also have the technology to conduct gamma ray and X ray inspections, and track containers wh-rever they go, much the way UPS tracks its millions of packages in transit.
The port of Hong Kong already has such technology, Biden claims, adding that it would cost no more than $15 per container to carry out such inspections, once the technology is in place, but the Bush Administration has slashed funding for port security for the past two years. There are currently no plans to implement an inspection system simliar to Hong Kong's.
"This administration's priorities have been misplaced," Biden says.