CHARLOTTE, N.C.  — Joe Biden stepped forward Thursday as Barack Obama’s chief character witness, link to middle class voters and potentially the most biting critic of Republican rival Mitt Romney.

Speaking candidly about his front-row seat to Obama’s presidency, Biden used his speech to Democrats’ convention to paint his friend as a gutsy leader who helped the nation turn the corner on its dour economy. He pointed to the decisions to bail out Detroit’s auto industry and to dispatch Navy SEALs into Pakistan for a fatal raid on al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s compound.

“Conviction. Resolve. Barack Obama,” Biden shouted to delegates watching in the convention hall and millions more watching at home.

Biden, the sometimes off-script but always fiery vice president, praised Obama’s hardest decisions. He deviated from his prepared remarks at times to include some of his signature rhetorical flourishes but stayed focused on the arguments Obama needs him to make to white, working-class voters.

“This man has courage in his soul, compassion in his heart and steel in his spine,” Biden said, drawing the crowd to its feet. “And because of all the actions he took, because of the calls he made, because of the grit and determination of American workers, and the unparalleled bravery of our special forces we can now proudly say what you’ve heard me say the last six months: Osama Bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive.”

In the crowd, several delegates held up bumper stickers with versions of that slogan.

But with stubbornly high unemployment and the economy the driving factor in the presidential race, Biden acknowledged many Americans were not yet feeling things had improved since Obama won the White House in 2008. He asked for patience.

“Yes, the work of recovery is not yet complete, but we are on our way,” Biden said. “The journey of hope is not yet finished, but we are on our way. The cause of change is not fully accomplished, but we are on our way. So I say to you tonight, with absolute confidence, America’s best days are ahead, and, yes, we are on our way.”

Biden also spoke plainly about the respect he has developed for Obama during the past 3 1/2 years, particularly the president’s hands-on approach to foreign policy. The two sometimes have disagreed, but that has only increased Biden’s standing with Obama, who appreciates discussion over dictating decisions. On days they are both on White House grounds, they spend some four hours together in meetings; Biden often is the last person Obama consults on major decisions.

“I want to take you inside the White House to see the president, as I see him every day,” Biden said. “Because I don’t see him in sound bites. I walk down the hall, 30 steps to into the Oval Office, and I see him, I watch him in action.”

“He always has the courage to make the tough decisions,” Biden added.

Biden has been an occasional headache for Obama, though. On the day Obama signed the Democrats’ health care overhaul into law, Biden stole headlines by using an expletive in range of a live microphone. He forced Obama’s hand on gay rights during an interview that sped up the president’s endorsement of gay marriage. And more recently, to an African-American audience in Virginia, he said of Republicans, “They’re going to put y’all back in chains.”

Yet Biden has a knack for connecting with blue-collar workers that Obama simply does not. He can deliver scathing criticism through clenched grins in a way that Obama cannot. He can promote Obama’s accomplishments that would sound like bragging if the president talked in the same way.

“Day after day, night after night, I sat beside him as he made one gutsy decision after another,” he said.

Born in Scranton, Pa., and raised as a member of the working class, Biden speaks with credibility to voters’ frustrations with Washington, despite having first won election to the Senate in 1972. He can move an audience with stories about coping with the death of his first wife and daughter in a car accident or seeing his father forced to move to Delaware to find work.

“When I was a young kid in third grade, I remember my dad coming up the stairs in my grandpop’s house where we were living, sitting on the end of my bed, and saying, ‘Joey, I’m going to have to leave for a while. Go down to Wilmington, Del., with Uncle Frank. There are good jobs down there honey, and in a little while, I will be able to send for you and mom and Jimmy and Val, and everything is going to be fine,'” Biden said. “For the rest of our lives, my dad never failed to remind us that a job is about a lot more than a paycheck. It is about your dignity. It’s about respect. It’s about your place in the community.”

Plus, Biden has demonstrated a certain glee in eviscerating his rivals’ proposals, especially their plans for seniors’ health care. He said Romney’s business experience helped his companies make “highest profits. But it’s not the way to lead our country from its highest office.”

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