It’s off to the races for Joe Biden.

The senator from Delaware hopes to be president soon, but right now, as he flies down the Capitol steps into a waiting Jeep, he has more immediate concerns. He wants to catch the 5:20 train to Wilmington, which he has done virtually every workday for 14 years. It’s already 5:14. But as Biden’s friends will tell you, when he makes up his mind he wants something — get out of the way.

At Union Station, he puffs on past the taxi stand, garment bag pounding at his hip. As he sprints down a skinny hall toward the gate, a passer-by calls, "We're with ya, Joe." He jogs left to the track.

A conductor waves him through, and he’s on. The game of it all: It’s like his football days at Archmere Academy when he’d holler at pals in the huddle, “What the hell you guys doing out there?” He wasn’t even the quarterback. Or at the University of Delaware, when one poor guy thought he’d beaten Joe fair and square in a wild water fight — only to find the entire contents of his dorm room set up in the street an hour later.

Or like running for president.

"He just doesn't like to lose," says college roommate Donald Brunner. "And he never did. Even if it took three months" to get back on top.

Biden plops down in his seat and flashes The Smile, which comes and goes as steadily as a blinking light. He leans forward as if to confide a secret. His voice is somewhat nasal and he often speaks from the side of his mouth, with no trace of the stutter he had as a child.

"I'm going to win this thing. I really am," he says. And then there's the flashing smile again. Like a gleaming white period, it punctuates his thoughts, often at curious times. He can be talking arms control, Central America or health care — and there it is — and then it's gone.

He sits back, yanks down his cuffs and adjusts the links. A second later he’s eyeball-to-eyeball.

"I just know it," he says. "I can feel it in my fingertips."

The ‘Dumb Blond’ Problem

The obvious question is: How does Joe Biden know this and why does he know it?

A year ago, he seemed a clear threat to break out of the pack. "He worries us," a Jack Kemp aide said back then. "He may be the wild card, the guy who inexplicably moves the voters ..."

What’s baffling, then, is why Biden hasn’t budged in the polls while most of his competitors have. The most recent Washington Post-ABC News Poll put him last in a field of seven active Democrats. In an Iowa poll taken after Gary Hart’s withdrawal, Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri, who has practically moved into the state, jumped from 9 to 24 percent; former governor Bruce Babbitt of Arizona, who has been running unprecedented early television ads, moved from 3 to 6 percent; and Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts moved from 4 to 11 percent. Biden held firm at 1 percent.

Says another GOP strategist today: "The fact that an Al Gore and a Bill Clinton {the senator from Tennessee and the governor of Arkansas} believe there is still room for them in the race means Biden may have missed something."

So how can Joe Biden be confident? The obvious answer is: With Biden, wanting it and winning it are the same thing.

Sheer force of will has kept him churning all these years. His athletic successes, his legislative failures, the good years, the bad luck — through it all runs the thread of Biden's single-minded drive to beat the odds, to conquer and control.

It’s a distinct advantage, his staff will tell you, sounding like members of a well-rehearsed choir. Joe can move people: He strikes a chord as Mr. Positive, radiating optimism, who goes after what he wants.

But as he formally announces his candidacy today, there’s a nagging uneasiness among some political professionals, a sense that Joe Biden believes he can simply will himself into the presidency.

Biden shrugs off such talk. This is the criticism he has gotten all his life, he says, that somehow everything came easily to him. "The one thing I always admired about great athletes, great leaders, great writers, great artists — is they always made things look effortless," he says. "I have worked as hard or harder than anyone I know for anything I have gotten."

He's a good-looking man, lanky and blue-eyed, and knows it. He was the golden boy growing up: class president, all-purpose athlete, the guy who got the girls. There were years of self-doubt after his first wife died, but they are over. He appears quite comfortable with himself in a way Gary Hart, for example, never has.

At 44, he’s one of the youngest candidates, and like Hart in ’84, he’s been belting out the themes of “new generation” politics — lost dreams and fresh ideals, old protests and a new activism — in the hope that fellow baby boomers will start humming along.

Biden is a legendary motor-mouth, and his tenacity is at once impressive and tedious. Long after aides, reporters and supporters are drooping, he's still talking. At what was supposed to be a meeting of a dozen ministers recently in Mason City, Iowa, only one showed up. Undaunted, the candidate took off his jacket, sat down and said to the man, "Tell me about yourself." After 45 minutes, the minister finally told him, "I've got to go now."

He works hard at charming. "Please look me over," he tells every last potential supporter during a courthouse tour in Waterloo. "If you don't like what you see — just vote for the other guy." They laugh. "He's got what it takes," says Dorothy Higgenstein. "He's a good BS'er."

In interviews, he gives long-winded responses that veer in all directions, always concluding with “See what I mean?” On the stump, though, he is a fine orator, essentially relying on the same speech he’s used since 1983.

Biden supporters admit they are not so much offering a specific agenda as a candidate with family values, political passion and optimism. His detractors say this makes his campaign short on substance. The New Republic recently dubbed him "Ronald Biden." And Mario Cuomo, not a noted Biden fan, has warned him he may have a "dumb blond" problem.

" 'Be careful about being a great orator,' " Biden says the New York governor told him. "He said people assume that any woman who is that attractive is not smart." So now, he jokes, "we're dropping the 'good orator' part from the literature."

As for his poor showing in the Iowa poll, Biden says: “These guys have been in here a lot ... If I were here 150 or 160 days, like Gephardt says he’s been — as much time as Babbitt says he’s been here — and I was where they are in the polls, I’d be scared to death.”

Political observers suggest Biden may be operating on his own timetable, conserving money and energy until the fall. Indeed, money has been his big surprise: He's raised $1.73 million to date, far surpassing his Democratic opponents. It made people take serious notice.

Getting noticed in the Senate, however, has been a problem for Biden.

A consistent liberal (with the exception of his strong opposition to busing and federal funding for abortion), he took over the Judiciary Committee this year, though he at first questioned whether he could handle the chairmanship and run for president at the same time. He already had accomplished some significant things there: In 1984, he was the key consensus builder in the rewriting of the criminal code; he is credited with crafting a compromise to save the Civil Rights Commission; and he led the fight against various Reagan judicial appointees he believed were too ideological in their approach.

But many ask why he hasn't done more. After all these years in the Senate, why doesn't he stand out like a Sam Nunn, with his mastery of defense issues, or a Bill Bradley, with his leadership on tax reform?

Biden is sensitive to the charge; in the past month, he has delivered addresses on the economy, foreign policy and child poverty. And he offers a stock response that tries to turn weakness into strength:

“The qualities that makes one a great legislator,” he says, “don’t necessarily make one a great chief executive officer ... If you chose to become the one who knows more about widgets than anything else, then you’re not going to know a lot about health care, you’re not going to be that involved with foreign policy.”

Number One Son

Another thing Joe Biden knows, particularly since Dec. 18, 1972, is that family comes first for him.

The symbol of this connection has come to be the Washington-Wilmington train. The conductors know him well by now: He's ridden with them four hours a day since his first Senate election.

The trip can't help but conjure up images of the exhilarated young senator pulling into Union Station for the first time at age 29, having defeated Caleb Boggs, one of the most popular politicians in his state; of his returning home 41 days later to console his two young sons after their mother and sister were killed; of his subsequent refusal, even after he remarried, to uproot his family from its Delaware home.

So it is no accident that media coverage is often orchestrated around the train: "West 57th" recently filmed him on board; the "Today" show filmed him boarding. And his announcement today will come first at the Wilmington station. The campaign knows a winning theme when it sees one, and this theme — you might call it "We Are Family" — has the added advantage of truth.

Biden’s sister Valerie, who moved in with him when his first wife died, runs his campaigns. His mother Jean organizes the coffees. His dad Joe Sr. travels with him, and his two brothers — businessmen Jimmy and Frank — raise money. His second wife, Jill, has turned down a separate traveling schedule so she can be with him on the road. His sons Beau (Joseph III) and Hunter, to whom he came home all those nights, now alternate trips to Iowa and New Hampshire.

The candidate's stamina, ego and competitive nature all go back to his family, a noisy, quick-witted Irish Catholic clan who tend to say "we" when discussing Joe's career. As in "We know we can win," or "Our campaign is out to show what kind of man Joey is." Says Jimmy: "We have a policy that no matter who Joey is with, he always takes our calls."

Family meetings are a Biden institution. Growing up, says Valerie, the siblings would get together any time "one of us was acting in a way the rest of us didn't appreciate." Later, expanded to include Mom and Dad, the meetings became forums to discuss the Number One Son's career: whether he would run for city council, when he would run for the Senate, why he should wait till '88 to run for president.

Still, Biden is touchy — particularly in light of the Hart debacle — about seeming to play up his family life too much.

"Six months from now someone is going to say Joe Biden is campaigning saying he's a better family man than someone else," he says. "I'm going to end up getting it turned on me and I don't want to be the source ... I do not believe that my view of family is a view anyone else should have. It works for me."

Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. was born in Scranton, Pa., and grew up in Wilmington, the eldest child of a homemaker who insisted her children read three newspapers a day. His dad, a dapper car salesman, was self-conscious about not having gone to college. The children all did.

Friend after friend says the one thing you always noticed about the Biden kids was their extraordinary confidence. Says Jean Biden: "They had to have a sense of who they were."

She made sure of that. Once young Joey came running home from school because a nun had mimicked his stutter, calling him "B-b-b-biden." Mother and son went right back to visit the offending sister. "Don't ever treat my son like that again," Jean told her. And then, looking at Joe: "You never have to take that from anyone."

Joe was popular but not big on the books.

"I was looking for Bs, a C-plus," says Joe Sr., who made his son quit football in college because of poor grades. Joe "was never a knock-down, drag-out scholar. That's for sure. He was primarily interested in girls and sports."

Biden "was much better at essay questions," recalls David Walsh, a former classmate and law partner, "and in class discussions. He could have not read the assignment the night before, and from the discussion be able to extemporize ..."

The Biden house was a center of high school activity, and Joe was always the leader. "If there was a bunch of kids hanging around, and one group wanted to go to the movies and the other wanted to hit a ball around, they'd head to the movies if that's what Joe wanted to do," says Jimmy Biden.

But as the gang got older, Biden's obsession with winning sometimes lost him support. Marty Londergan, a Wilmington dentist and Biden friend, tells this story about their postcollege football games:

"The football league that we played in was an industrial league — pipefitters, carpenters — and Joe was a hothead. In his drive to win he had a tendency to bring out the worst in the opponents. He would taunt the opposition and we'd be lucky to get out of there with our shirts on. It got to be too rough, so I stopped playing."

Biden entered the University of Delaware in 1961 and studied history and political science. The summer of his junior year he met Neilia Hunter, who would become his first wife, and in 1965 he enrolled at Syracuse for law school so she could finish her undergraduate work there.

His law school years were a time of campus activism, but while he may court the '60s generation today — drawing on collective memories of marches and protests — he wasn't really moved by the war himself. He never did march. He wore blazers to class.

"It wasn't going on when I was in college, and when I was in graduate school I wasn't hanging around at the student union," he says. "I was hanging around with other married couples."

Others, he says, "felt more strongly than I did about the immorality" of the Vietnam war. "My view of it was it didn't make sense. It was lousy policy ... It really came down to my rejection of the rationale that somehow there was this monolithic communism spreading through the countryside, and next thing you know they'd be marching under the Golden Gate Bridge."

Biden says he received a draft notice after graduating from law school, but failed the physical because of an asthma condition. He had hoped to be a pilot.

"My feeling about it at the time was like a lot of things in my life have been: That there must have been a reason for it. I was prepared to go. I was not anxious to go, because I didn't think, 'My God, I can hardly wait to go and join the military.' "

‘At 29, Joe Had It All’

The one time Biden lost control of his life, lost his confidence, was after Neilia’s death. It took him years to recover.

"I realized ... I was less in control of my destiny," he says. "I had sort of an endless faith that I could will anything to happen. I never counted on this."

The family has made a decision not to talk much about Neilia or the accident. But ask Biden about her, and he'll talk until he starts to think he's said too much.

He met her in Nassau, pool-side. "I said to my friend, 'I get the blond,' " he recalls. "So we ended up flipping a coin and I won ... Neilia and I hit it off immediately ... After that, I commuted to Syracuse every single weekend to see her until I graduated."

They were married during law school and after graduation returned home to Wilmington, where he opened a law practice. Within a year, he was looking to politics.

First he got elected to the county council. Neilia helped mastermind the campaign; Biden often referred to her as the "brains."

"She could control him and make him think it was his idea," says former law partner Walsh. "Those were the good times for all of us ... You wanted to be around them."

Two years later, the Bidens decided — brashly — to tackle the Senate. He started running in 1970 for the '72 race. By then, they had the two boys and an infant girl, nicknamed Caspy because she looked like Casper the Friendly Ghost.

There was probably not a soul, aside from his family, who thought Biden could win the race. Boggs, the Republican, was a two-term senator who had been governor and congressman — and people liked him. He made a huge mistake, however: He ignored his opponent. And in one of the biggest upsets in the state's history, Delaware sent Joe Biden to Washington by just under 3,000 votes.

Six weeks later, Neilia and Caspy were dead.

Biden got the call in December, while in Washington interviewing staff. Neilia's station wagon had been hit by a truck, killing her and their daughter instantly. The two boys, then 2 and 3, were critically injured.

He wanted to quit the Senate that day. Mike Mansfield, then majority leader, pleaded with him to stay. Hubert Humphrey sat in his office and consoled him. In the end, he was sworn in at his sons' hospital bedside.

By all accounts, the period following Neilia's death was horrible. Biden talks about those years as a time of rage and anger. It was then that words like "arrogant" and "shallow" attached themselves to his name. He developed an adversarial relationship with reporters. He once told a labor leader waiting to see him to "stick it."

The family recalls his mood as more lifeless than hostile. His main companion those days was his brother Jimmy. Sometimes they'd walk the streets for hours.

Jimmy remembers times when Joe would come home from the Senate, put the kids to bed and go and sit in his study. They'd find him there still staring at the walls the next morning. "I'm not sure how much he valued in his life in those days," says Jimmy. "Except the boys."

His sister Valerie and her husband moved in with him. Biden commuted to and from Washington daily. He recalls coming home at night to find the boys listening to their favorite song: "You and Me Against the World."

He cut off most of his friends. "I look back on those days and think I could have done more," says David Walsh.

And in the Senate, he just didn't catch on. "The first several years I 'did my job and went home.' Period. I didn't want to be there," Biden says. "I did what my dear father would call a workmanlike job."

For the past 15 years, Biden has mostly refused to answer questions about Neilia. His staff says this is in part due to a very chatty interview he gave Kitty Kelley in 1973 for The Washingtonian magazine.

Kelley called Biden's office a photo "shrine" to Neilia. And she quoted him on his deepest feelings about dating, his late wife and sex. The presidential candidate cringes when Kelley's article is mentioned.

"She sat there and cried at my desk," he says. "I found myself consoling her saying, 'Don't worry ... It's okay, I'm going to be fine.' I was such a sucker." (Kelley says she doesn't recall crying, but does remember that the senator volunteered to show his diary and love letters.)

By the mid-'70s, he had begun to come out of it. And around this time, not coincidentally, he met Jill Jacobs.

"I realized I had to put the past behind me," says Biden. "I had to move on. That's what she would have wanted me to do."

Soon the pictures of Neilia began to disappear. Today, of the nearly 100 framed family photos in his office, there is not one that includes her. “It doesn’t mean you lose respect, or that you loved any less,” he says. “It means you’ve made the choice to decide to live.”

Later, as the train pulls into Wilmington, he says: "Jill put my whole life back together. Hell, the whole thing."

They met shortly after he spotted her picture at the Wilmington airport: An attractive blond, she'd modeled in an ad for the county park service. As luck would have it, he says, his brother Frank knew her from the University of Delaware. Frank called her girlfriend for Jill's unlisted number. The senator then called her cold.

"The first thing she said was, 'How did you get my number?' " he recalls.

Jill, 36, says she wasn't impressed with his title and knew very little about him. "I told him he was lucky that I had actually voted for him," she says.

Before their third date, he phoned her from the Senate gym and asked her not to date anyone else. Two years later, as he was shaving, his two sons wandered into the bathroom. “Daddy,” Biden remembers Beau saying, “we’ve been thinking about it. And we think it’s time that we marry Jill.”

And so, in 1977, they did. But not before Jimmy and Frank took her to dinner. "They told me it was a dream of this family that Joe would be president and did I have any problem with that," says Jill. "I guess I thought it would go away."

The Bidens now live in a grand old peach-colored house in Wilmington, with the two boys and their daughter Ashley, 6. Jill teaches history to emotionally disturbed teen-agers.

They’ve made the unusual decision not to travel separately, saying that’s just about the only time they have together.

"You have to understand that at 29 Joe had it all," says Valerie. "He had a beautiful wife. He had three young children. He was the the youngest man to be elected to the U.S. Senate. It was all there.

“One month later his world was shattered. Whenever you’ve had it and lost it — whatever ‘that’ is that is your essence — you are much less likely to risk it a second time.”

‘How’s the Campaign?’

As Biden moves through Iowa, he needs all the self-confidence he can muster as he tries to convince people that — polls notwithstanding — he really can pull this off.

"How's the campaign?" asks the candidate, repeating a reporter's question with a sheepish grin. "Well, the gurus are all still talking to each other. What more can you ask for?"

The staff has been bickering, it's said, and the joke around Washington goes something like this: The Biden campaign is like a jumbo jet with no pilot, everyone in first class and no one riding coach.

"I'm the pilot," laughs Biden when told about the joke.

He has attracted an abundance of talented, high-profile political consultants. Yet he's been slow to hire midlevel support staff.

Boston-based political consultant John Marttila, pollster and strategist Patrick Caddell, and principal fundraiser and longtime aide Ted Kaufman were all involved in Biden's first Senate race. Tim Ridley, who has the title of campaign manager, was a top aide to Sen. Frank Lautenberg and worked on Chuck Robb's gubernatorial race. Tom Donilon, one of the party's foremost experts on delegate selection, is a member of the strategy group. First among equals is Valerie Owens, who has run all her brother's campaigns. "Val can finish my sentences for me," says Biden, who told his sister, "I want you to be the one to call the shots if anything comes down ... you're the final shot."

"The gurus" may bring a lot of energy and expertise, but they also make the campaign top-heavy. Most controversial is Caddell, who — deservedly or not — has a reputation as a disruptive influence. Two weeks ago, Mario Cuomo suggested pejoratively that Biden did everything Caddell told him to.

"Patrick would no more cross me than fly," responds Biden. "Pat's like a little brother, in the sense that I can tell him, 'Hey, look, you just made a fool of yourself. Now stop — and if you don't, don't come home.' "

Field organizers have complained that Biden has not been spending enough time on the road. Activists in both Iowa and New Hampshire grouse about weak statewide organizations. They also say that when Biden does come courting, staff follow-up is inexcusably slow.

"The problem was that I came before the organization came," Biden concedes. "I came out here {to Iowa} March 3 ... People were saying I'm ready and I was there by myself."

"They're building their house differently," says Rep. Dave Nagle, former Iowa Democratic Party chairman and everyone's friend. "They've gone after the money and the party leaders and ignored the numbers."

Slowly, though, the Biden people seem to be getting their whole house together.

Signing up Sen. Daniel Inouye as campaign cochairman was considered a coup. A couple of dozen House members — among them Marty Russo, Barbara Boxer and Les AuCoin — are expected to follow soon. Last week Biden surprised his competitors by announcing endorsements from four heavyweight Iowans — the state treasurer, the lieutenant governor, the former state chairman and the 1986 gubernatorial candidate. Reportedly, he's even had a hair transplant. ("Guess," he says when asked to confirm it. "I've got to keep some mystery in my life.")

"We're trying to demonstrate one thing: that Joe Biden can win in a general election," says Kaufman. "The fact that we were able to raise this money ... is positive for us in New Hampshire and Iowa. Now are you going to support someone who has spent six days in your living room but you're not sure he can win? ... I don't think so."

But whatever progress he's made, Iowans are still raising eyebrows at his position in the polls — and the candidate remains in doubt-deflecting mode. At Waterloo's Yen Ching restaurant, Biden stands up, takes off his jacket and positions himself to counterattack from behind a huge platter of spicy pork.

"The question was," he tells a group of candidate shoppers, "how are you doing?

"Well, every time someone asks me that, I'm reminded of the story about the farmer who sues an insurance company over injuries from a car accident. The lawyer representing the other side thinks he has it made: It seems that the police report shows that the farmer told a state trooper at the scene, 'I feel fine. Nothing wrong with me.'

" 'How do you explain that?' the lawyer asks the farmer on the witness stand.

" 'Well, you have to understand,' says the farmer. 'When the car hit my truck it threw me and my cow to the ground. There I was laying there when this trooper gets out of his car and I see his black boots head over to my cow. He says to his partner, "This cow looks like it's in pain." So he takes his gun out and blows the cow's head off.

" 'Then he walks over to my side of the car, and looks down at me.

" 'I feel fine,' I yelled. 'Nothing wrong with me.' "

With a comedian's timing, Biden pauses, looks around room and crows: "Folks, I FEEL FINE!"

The room erupts with laughter. That night, he signs up 12 volunteers. The polls don’t budge — but he knows they will.