Biden Faces One More Inflection Point After a Life of Struggle

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Mr. Biden seems to think he comes across as funnier than he does. “Not a joke!” he says again and again, four, eight, 10 times in a single speech. In San Diego last week, he told one audience that his remarks were “not a joke” a full 17 times — and threw in “I’m not joking” four more times. (A Biden speech is like a drinking game for political nerds — “Not a joke!” Drink!)

Indeed, Mr. Biden has always connected with audiences not through humor so much as humanity. His speeches are animated by stories of pain — his young wife and daughter killed in a car accident, his own near-death experience with two brain aneurysms, his son Beau’s death. He still summons the name of the nurse who took care of him in the hospital more than three decades ago.

“People understand that I understand loss and I think it’s so important that people understand that from that loss — the pain never goes away but you can do incredible things,” he said last week. “The person you lost never leaves your heart. I don’t know how many times I ask myself what would Beau do?”

Even now, his childhood struggles with stuttering define him. To this day, he divides his speech texts with hash marks, a technique he learned to make public speaking earlier. And the insecurities that come from it are never far from the surface. He brought it up last week seemingly at random.

“I used to ta- ta- ta- talk — talk like that wh- wh- wh- when I w- wa- was a kid,” he told one audience. “It’s awful hard to ask the girl, ‘Will you go to the p- pr- pr- prom with me?’ And it sounds funny, but guess what? It makes you feel like an idiot.”

Anticipating the next few days, Mr. Biden refuses to concede defeat. He was encouraged by the energy of Saturday night’s rally in Pennsylvania with former President Barack Obama and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the Senate candidate, as well as positive indicators from Arizona and New Hampshire.

His mood, aides said, is one of fighting through the tape. “He’s spent the last weeks pushing us — what else can he do?” said Anita Dunn, his senior adviser.

But if he takes a licking on Tuesday, aides said, he will own it and move ahead. In a life of falling and getting back up, it would be one more stumble, not the end. On that at least, he has faith.

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