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Joseph R. Biden Jr.

For Senator, Another Comeback

Barack and Michelle Obama, along with Jill and Joseph Biden, on the steps of the old Illinois statehouse in Springfield.
Barack and Michelle Obama, along with Jill and Joseph Biden, on the steps of the old Illinois statehouse in Springfield. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
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By Eli Saslow and Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, August 24, 2008

As they watched Joseph R. Biden Jr. step on stage in Springfield, Ill., yesterday, a 65-year-old with white hair jogging to the lectern, many of his longtime friends and colleagues experienced a touch of deja vu: Once again, Biden had resurrected a career that appeared destined for decline.

Nearly eight months ago, Biden withdrew from the 2008 presidential race after winning less than 1 percent of the delegates in Iowa's Democratic caucuses. It was an ignoble failure for one of the most prominent and senior members of the U.S. Senate, and friends worried openly about Biden's psyche. Biden worried only about what he would do next.

That's how it has always been with Biden, Barack Obama's long-awaited choice for vice president. Setbacks are followed by successes, and the cycle repeats. A tragic car accident, brain aneurysms, a plagiarism scandal, two failed presidential runs -- nothing has permanently derailed him.

Biden has spent 35 years representing Delaware in the Senate, serving as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and the Judiciary Committee -- experience that will help counter Republican charges that Obama is untested. But it is Biden's resilience enduring the highs and lows of political life that could benefit Obama the most, advisers said.

"If you were to say, 'Who is the unluckiest person I know in the world?' I'd say, 'Joe Biden,' " said Ted Kaufman, Biden's chief of staff for much of his first 22 years in the Senate. "If you were to say, 'Who is the luckiest person I know in the world?' I'd say, 'Joe Biden.' "

The son of a homemaker and a Delaware car salesman, Biden went to Roman Catholic prep school and then played football at the University of Delaware, the first of four siblings to go to college. He eked through Syracuse University law school as a self-described slacker who graduated near the bottom of his class.

He took a job at a law firm in Wilmington., Del., and ran for county councilman on a whim in 1970. He was a promising Democrat in a tiny state dominated by Republicans, and the Democratic Party chairman immediately handed the 27-year-old newcomer a position on a statewide panel designed to improve the party's prospects.

Two years later, party leaders suggested that Biden run for Senate. It was a long shot, they admitted, but the Republican incumbent was nearing retirement. Why not take a chance on a fresh voice?

Biden initially demurred, thinking he would not meet the Senate's age requirement of 30 years. He double-checked the math, realized he would qualify by five weeks and asked his sister Valerie to become his campaign manager. As he traveled through Delaware with his wife, Neilia, and their three young children, voters sometimes asked if he was campaigning for his father. But he came from 30 points behind in the polls to win by 3,000 votes.

"It was an insane campaign," said John Martilla, a friend who worked on Biden's behalf.

Biden traveled to Washington to start interviewing potential staff members while Neilia prepared for a celebratory Christmas at home. One afternoon, while Biden was setting up his office, a friend called and told him to rush back to Delaware. Neilia and the children had been in a car accident while shopping for a Christmas tree, the friend said. Biden arrived in Wilmington two hours later to learn that Neilia and their baby daughter, Naomi, were dead. Their sons, Beau and Hunter, were severely injured.

Devastated, Biden decided he would not take his Senate seat. The Senate majority leader at the time, Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.), called Biden incessantly at the Wilmington hospital, begging him to change his mind. Biden finally relented and said he'd try the job for six months. He took his oath of office from his sons' hospital room.


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