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“I probably had better political instincts then,” he wrote in his book. “Today I’d probably win the point but lose the match because I’d be too busy ripping somebody’s head off with the facts. But I knew enough in 1972 to know that nobody in the audience wanted to see Boggs embarrassed.”

Missing from Mr. Biden’s lengthy speeches about Mr. McCain is the favorite Democratic attack line of late. Democrats have charged Mr. McCain wants a “100-year war” since he answered a town hall question by saying it was possible the United States could retain a presence in Iraq for “maybe 100” years.

Instead of reprising the attack in his speech, Mr. Biden said the Republican had taken “a lot of heat,” but explained, “the truth is,” and detailed what Mr. McCain meant. He still went on to call that scenario an unrealistic fantasy.

Even though he once turned in his badge as the school bus monitor in grade school rather than report his sister for bad behavior, the two are close friends. Valerie Biden Owens has long served as his campaign manager and advocated for her brother on the trail.

She helped him overcome his toughest personal challenge - losing his first wife Nelia and infant daughter Naomi in a car wreck in 1972. He learned the news while preparing to take his oath of office as a newly elected senator and didn’t know what to do.

Sen. John McClellan of Arkansas, then in his 70s, offered Mr. Biden some advice: “There’s only one thing to do. Bury yourself in work.”

That’s what he did, shaping his role in the Senate as its youngest member. In 1988 he mounted a bid for the presidential nomination, even though he worried that even with his years of service, “the idea of my being president seemed far-fetched.”

He had a few gaffes on the trail, but none worse than charges he had lifted elements of his stump speech from a British politician, a revelation that ultimately torpedoed his candidacy.

He returned to the Senate to complete the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Robert H. Bork, which the Senate rejected with Mr. Biden helping lead the way.

Soon after, the headaches Mr. Biden felt on the trail went from bad to worse. Ending the campaign might have been the best thing - it turned out he had a brain aneurysm that nearly killed him. Following his dad’s “Get up!” advice after his recovery, Mr. Biden threw himself into his Senate career and later led the Democrats during the Supreme Court nomination hearings for Clarence Thomas.

He also became a foreign-policy champion, noting in his book one of his proudest moments was meeting with Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Milosevic and telling the rogue leader to his face, “I think you’re a damn war criminal and you should be tried as one.”

His role evolved years later, and even though he voted for the Iraq war he became a key point man on helping find a solution for a way to end it. His plan to partition Iraq and create a weak central government in Baghdad was overwhelmingly endorsed by the Senate last year.

Before he mounted his second bid, he realized he was “absolutely prepared” to be president, but recognized it would be tough getting his message through.

He was right about the campaign, but he’ll be talking for years to come.