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In potential 2016 campaign preview, Obama spotlights Biden on tour

U.S. President Barack Obama (L) and Vice President Joe Biden appear at an event in Biden's home town of Scranton, Pennsylvania, August 23, 2
U.S. President Barack Obama (L) and Vice President Joe Biden appear at an event in Biden's home town of Scranton, Pennsylvania, August 23, 2

By Jeff Mason

SCRANTON, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - President Barack Obama has so far stayed neutral about the presidential prospects of Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden - two friends who may be vying to succeed him - but on Friday he showcased his vice president with a joint appearance in Biden's hometown.

Ending a two-day bus trip through New York and Pennsylvania focused on his proposals to bring down education costs, Obama came to a working-class town that Democrats covet in presidential elections and where Biden has roots.

Neither Biden nor Clinton, the former secretary of state, has declared intentions for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. Clinton is seen as a prohibitive front-runner if she runs but Biden has made clear he has not ruled out a go at the top job, either.

On Friday Biden seemed to relish the campaign-like atmosphere and looked every bit as much a candidate as a visiting vice president.

"I tell you, it's good to be home," Biden, who was born in Scranton and spent part of his childhood there, told the cheering crowd at a community college.

Biden mentioned that his son Beau was fine after a recent medical procedure and then focused his short remarks on key themes for any aspiring U.S. candidate: faith, family, hard work and the ability to rise into the middle class.

"The American Dream is alive here in Scranton," Biden said.

"There are a lot of people who tell you that you have to shrink your dreams in this country now, that today's generation of Americans and tomorrow's are just not going to aim as high as we did. That's a bunch of malarkey!" he said, reprising a memorable line from last year's vice presidential debate with Republican Paul Ryan.

When Obama joined him onstage, the two men shook hands and embraced and then Obama let loose with compliments for his No. 2.

"If it weren't for Scranton, I wouldn't have Joe Biden," Obama said to applause from the crowd.

Friday was a special day for the two men, Obama said. Five years ago he had announced that Biden would be his running mate on the Democratic ticket that won the 2008 election.

"It was the best decision that I ever made politically," Obama said. "Because I love this guy and he's got heart and he cares about people and he's willing to fight for what he believes in."

Biden has run for president twice before and failed. Clinton, the former first lady and New York senator, ran in 2008 and lost the Democratic nomination to Obama.

The president and his former top diplomat also have remained close. They recently had lunch together at the White House, and Obama did a rare joint television interview with her when she stepped down from the State Department - a very public show of support.

Prominent supporters of Obama's 2012 re-election also have aligned themselves with Clinton.

Although Obama cannot run for president again, the two-day tour felt a lot like a campaign swing for him as well. He made surprise stops at a school, a pie shop and a restaurant for lunch, surprising locals and shaking hands.

Music that played during his 2012 race came on at the end of his speeches.

Obama used his time before friendly crowds to rip Republicans over budget battles and healthcare, including - in Scranton - a swipe at his 2012 opponent, Mitt Romney, who ushered in healthcare reform as governor of Massachusetts that served as a model for Obama's signature reform law.

"It's actually a really good idea. It's going to work," the president said of Obamacare. "Used to be a Republican idea. There was a governor in Massachusetts (who) set it up. It's working really well."

(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Bill Trott)

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