KITTERY –– Vice President Joe Biden condemned the terrorists who posted online videos of the beheading of two American journalists Wednesday, declaring that the nation will pursue them “to the gates of hell.”

Biden made his comments in an appearance at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, just across the border from New Hampshire, which was the home of journalist James Foley and where the second journalist, Steven Sotloff, went to school.

“The American people are so much stronger, so much more resolved than any enemy can fully understand,” Biden said. “As a nation, we’re united. And when people harm Americans, we don’t retreat, we don’t forget.”

Biden’s speech to hundreds of shipyard workers came two days after a terrorist group released a video of Sotloff’s murder and about two weeks after the release of a video showing Foley being killed.

“We take care of those who are grieving and when that’s finished, they should know we will follow them to the gates of hell until they are brought to justice,” Biden said. “Because hell is where they’ll reside.”

Biden said the shipyard, which nearly closed as part of a Defense Department streamlining in 2005, was a “centerpiece” of the national defense program and was the “best in the world.” He said the yard represents the “basic bargain” for the middle class in pursuit of the American Dream, that if you work hard and are productive, then you can receive a fair wage.

He applauded the shipyard’s focus on apprenticeships, while allowing workers to earn college credits.

“You’ve kept the most highly skilled work force here in Maine and in New Hampshire,” said Biden, who is considered a potential 2016 presidential contender. “The rest of the world, the rest of the nation, private enterprise can learn a lot from your example.”

Biden’s tour comes as the Defense Department considers another round of base closures, possibly by 2017 – an idea that met with a cool reception in April when it was considered by the U.S. Senate’s Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness and Management.

The shipyard was considered for closure in 2005, even though it was one of the more cost-effective yards in the U.S. The closure was averted by a heavy lobbying effort by shipyard workers, governors and congressional delegations in Maine and New Hampshire.

Portsmouth is one of four Navy yards remaining in the U.S. and employs roughly 4,700 civilian employees and about 100 military officers. Its 297-acre campus sits on Seavy Island, located at the mouth of the Piscataqua River.

Elected officials from Maine and Hampshire, including U.S. Reps. Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree, vowed to preserve funding for the Navy’s oldest shipyard and oppose any efforts to close the base.

New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, who noted that the shipyard pumps $650 million a year into the Seacoast economy, said she would work to ensure that any plan to closes bases would “never make it passed the readiness committee,” on which she serves.

U.S. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, D-New Hampshire, said, “We feel confident this shipyard is going to be here doing the work you do for many years to come.”

The delegation noted how the shipyard was setting the “gold standard,” not only for craftsmanship, but with labor and management relations.

“We are so protective of these jobs,” said Pingree, who is running for re-election against Republican Isaac Misiuk. “These are the kinds of jobs we don’t see enough of. Highly skilled, good-wage, union jobs.”

Pingree is married to S. Donald Sussman, majority owner of MaineToday Media, publisher of the Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel.

Democratic U.S Rep. Mike Michaud, who is running for governor, used his remarks to note the importance of American manufacturing, taking care of veterans and raising the minimum wage.

He noted that the U.S. military will fully comply with a requirement to wear U.S.-made athletic footwear, which could add hundreds of jobs at the New Balance factory in Maine, as well as the University of Maine’s so-called Bridge in a Backpack.

“These innovative manufacturing jobs are crucial just like this shipyard is crucial,” Michaud said.

Michael Short, spokesman for the Republican National Committee, accused Biden of politicizing a national security and economic issue by not inviting any Republicans to the shipyard event.

“It’s clear the Vice President is more interested in buoying his presidential ambitions and the reelection prospects of vulnerable Democrats which are all being dragged down by their lockstep support for President Obama and his unpopular agenda,” Short said in a written statement. He also asked how the Biden sees the U.S. pursuing the terrorists “to the gates of hell” in the absence of a clear strategy.

The visit also comes as elected officials in Maine and New Hampshire are awaiting word about whether they will receive a federal grant to help rebuild the rail portion of the Sarah Long Bridge, which connects Kittery to Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, who is supporting Gov. Paul LePage’s re-election, and independent Sen. Angus King, who recently endorsed independent Eliot Cutler for governor, did not attend Biden’s visit.

However, both have lobbied the administration for federal funding for bridge project.

King said in a written statement he was unable to accompany Biden on his visit to the shipyard because of a scheduling conflict. He stressed his opposition to additional base closures, noting several ongoing projects, including $11.5 million in construction projects and the procurement of two Virginia-class submarines.

“I am pleased to welcome Vice President Biden to Portsmouth Naval Shipyard where he will have the opportunity to see the extraordinary and important work done day-in-and-day-out in support of our Navy’s attack submarine fleet,” King said. “His visit to PNSY underscores the importance of the facility to our national defense, and I am confident that he will come away deeply impressed by both the caliber of the work accomplished and the talent and skill of the world-class workforce who get it done.”

In a statement from her office on Tuesday, Collins said she is hopeful the visit will cause the Obama administration to abandon a proposal for an other round of military base closures.

Biden’s visit comes on the heels of former President Bill Clinton’s rally in Portland for Michaud’s gubernatorial campaign, which like others in Maine and Hew Hampshire, is kicking in to high gear.

In addition, the visits by Clinton and Biden hint at the jockeying going on ahead of the 2016 presidential election. Former First Lady Hillary Clinton is considered a front-runner, while Biden hasn’t ruled out a run.

On the Republican side, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has visited Maine twice in support of LePage’s campaign and will host a breakfast fundraiser for LePage next Monday.

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: [email protected]

Twitter: @randybillings

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