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Of course, Mr. Biden once thought his foreign policy experience would deliver him a surprise finish in the Iowa caucus that could catapult him to the presidential nomination.

He wore his gray hair with pride, reminding voters he had worked with “seven presidents” and bragging he knows most of foreign leaders by their first names. He campaigned on a scrappy budget and said Iowans from tiny town to tinier town offered the “only level playing field left in American politics.”

Microbiologist Dennis Wegner of Ottumwa, told The Times he was supporting Mr. Biden despite him being a longshot, saying, “If he doesn’t place third at least, I know I supported the right person. Win, lose or draw, I am so thankful for the gift of listening to Joe.”

But after a dismal caucus showing in his second presidential bid - the first was in 1988 - Mr. Biden ended his run.

Now that he’s back to work, his resume and unabashed criticism of Republicans makes his name increasingly mentioned as a potential Cabinet secretary or vice presidential pick for Mr. Obama.

Mr. Biden was fond of telling voters who suggested he was perhaps a better fit for secretary of state, “Are you ready to vote for anyone for president who is not smarter than their secretary of state?”

While many praise Mr. Biden for telling it like it is, it has earned him the label of gaffe machine. He took heat when announcing his own candidacy by saying Mr. Obama was “clean” and “articulate” and the first black candidate with a real chance to win.

Mr. Obama defended his rival during the final debate in Iowa when Mr. Biden was asked about the remark, saying he had no doubt the senator has a commitment to racial equality. “I will provide some testimony, as they say in church, that Joe is on the right side of the issues and is fighting every day for a better America,” Mr. Obama said.

Mr. Biden is both mocked and revered for his willingness to curse, speak his mind and - gasp! - tell the truth about political reality.

“One criticism our party gets is we tend to be too timid,” Mr. Biden told The Times. “They’re waiting for the truth.”

He even admitted on “Meet the Press” this month that if asked to be Mr. Obama’s running mate, “Of course, I’ll say yes.” That’s the kind of candor most politicians avoid.

“He’s pathologically honest to a fault,” said Larry Rasky, a longtime loyal Biden aide who helped with both presidential bids.

Character counts

Mr. Rasky said sometimes it was Mr. Biden’s chipper demeanor that kept everyone else going: “We woke up in some pretty crusty motels and some pretty out of the way places, and I never saw Joe Biden walk out the door of whatever place we were or whatever the situation was in the campaign without the ability to look at the glass as half full.”

Mr. Biden’s friends say he avoids taking cheap shots. As a 29-year-old county council member hoping for a miracle to unseat incumbent Republican Sen. J. Caleb Boggs, he skipped a chance to stump his rival by boasting the right answer to a debate question the senator didn’t know.

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