Biden known as a blunt inquisitor

Joseph Robinette Biden Jr.'s best game is foreign affairs, an arena he cherishes.

Ask about the former Soviet Union, Bosnia, Middle East or almost any part of the globe, and he knows the history and the players. He's visited Iraq more than seven times.

Not bad for a kid from Pennsylvania who broke into politics as a councilman from New Castle County.

While his blunt style is a flashpoint for criticism, Biden's a foreign policy wonk whose uninhibited style engenders respect among Senate colleagues from both parties.

As Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, prepared to announce his running mate this week, Biden flew to the former Soviet territory of Georgia. U.S. interests there have clashed with a newly resurgent Russia. The trip further fueled speculation that Obama would select the Delaware senator as his choice for vice president.

Never short of an opinion, Biden is a favorite of the Sunday morning talk shows. He is a mesmerizing figure, brazen and outspoken, and nearly untouchable in Delaware politics. In some respects, his storybook life rivals Obama's.

In his recent autobiography, Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics, Biden says he began to understand in 1972 how despair led people to "just cash it in" and how "suicide wasn't just an option, but a rational option."

At the time, the newly elected 30-year-old senator had lost his wife, Neilia, and baby daughter, Naomi, in a car crash and his two sons were badly injured. He'd leave the hospital and walk the darkest, seediest neighborhoods he could find, "always looking for a fight."

"But I'd look at Beau and Hunter asleep and wonder what new terrors their own dreams held, and wonder who would explain to my sons my being gone, too," wrote Biden, now 65. "And I knew I had no choice but to fight to stay alive."

Written in his own candid voice, Biden's 365-page narrative portrays some of his darkest moments — the loss of his wife and daughter, the collapse of his 1988 presidential campaign amid plagiarism charges and the struggle to regain his health after near-fatal brain aneurysms.

But it's a personal journey less about despair than surviving — or, as he wrote, the need to "get up and keep moving."

Published by Random House, the book also includes behind-the-scenes exchanges with presidents and other world leaders throughout his 35-year Senate career, and sharp criticism of the Bush administration and its prosecution of the war in Iraq.

"But I believe the president failed to lead," he wrote. "History will judge him harshly not for the mistakes he made — we all make mistakes — but for the opportunities he squandered."

Some readers will be surprised to learn that there was a time when Biden hated public speaking.

He got tagged with the cruel nickname "Joe Impedimenta" in high school because of an embarrassing stutter. He overcame it by memorizing long passages of Yeats and Emerson and rehearsing the act of speaking in front of his mirror.

Later, another memorized passage would get him into trouble. Biden described in detail the implosion of his 1988 candidacy when he forgot to attribute a long passage he recited from British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock.

At the time, he was juggling his campaign with leading the charge against Judge Robert Bork, President Reagan's Supreme Court nominee, and he didn't prepare for the Iowa State Fair, thinking he could talk his way through the event. "I confess to a certain amount of arrogance," he wrote.

He regrets not telling reporters right then that he had made a mistake, in omitting Kinnock's name. He never imagined the omission would lead to the end of his campaign or that his character would be questioned.

"When I stopped trying to explain to everybody and thought it through, the blame fell totally on me," he wrote.

Biden's second wife, Jill, was the only person who knew how devastated he was, he wrote. But his perspective changed after he suffered near-fatal brain aneurysms. Out of the Senate for seven months, he learned to be in less of a hurry, he wrote.

"The presidency, for instance, could wait," he wrote. "There would be another time if I really wanted it."

Vice presidency

Dreams of the presidency mostly expired earlier this year when Biden was crushed in Iowa. He dropped out of the campaign before New Hampshire, but delayed an endorsement until after Hillary Rodham Clinton bowed out. At the time, Biden was sharing his foreign policy expertise with Clinton and Obama.

In the race for the vice presidency, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell gave Biden a boost, saying the Delaware senator's foreign policy experience and Scranton, Pa., roots made him the strongest running mate.

Before Biden dropped out of the presidential race, Florida Democrat Bill Nelson said that of all the candidates, Biden is "the most prepared to be president of the United States."

California Democrat Dianne Feinstein called him "one of the brightest lights we have."

Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter, a Republican who serves on the Judiciary Committee with Biden and often rides Amtrak with him to Washington, also offered praise.

"No one on the Democratic side knows more about foreign policy than Sen. Biden," Specter said. "He's been an articulate spokesman on the subject. He also knows about domestic policy. He's been a leader on crime control."

Connecting with voters

Apart from his national stature, Biden has demonstrated his personal charm and ability to connect one-on-one with Delaware voters by winning six Senate races. He is up for re-election this November.

Earlier this year in Washington, Biden met with an Ohio couple whose Marine son was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq.

Rosemary Palmer and Paul Schroeder have formed a support group for families of fallen soldiers. "We are glad someone is pushing back at Bush. I'm certain he will have a hand at finding a solution," Schroeder said.

Biden strikes others the wrong way.

Jim Wilson, a Vermont resident who watched some of Biden's hearings while visiting the capital, said Biden simply "talks too much" and might be better suited to influencing policy as a lawmaker.

Biden once challenged a New Hampshire voter to an IQ test. His self-serving questioning of Supreme Court nominees Bork and Samuel Alito drew darts. He made disparaging remarks about Princeton University. There was his statement last summer that in Delaware, "You cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin' Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent. I'm not joking."

Biden knows he's being watched, especially by the news media, "or a blogger with a camera phone."

While still in the running for the Democratic presidential nod, he said he could withstand the scrutiny.

"If my biggest test is, Am I too loquacious vs. whether I'm qualified or competent, I'd take that test," he said.

"This is not a judgment of what a group of elite though very well-informed reporters think. It's what people think in their living rooms in Iowa. What do they think in California? The public is going to make a judgment."

Political rhetoric in America has been dumbed-down, he said, calling the trend an insult to voters.

"One of the reasons we're in trouble is the last eight to 12 years, both political parties have concluded you've got to be able to get your whole platform down to a bumper sticker.

"But things are much more complicated and serious than that. I'm going to treat the American people with respect. I'm going to give them my rationale. I'm not going to assume they can't understand it."

A political dynasty

Catherine Mancini remembers the first time she decided to back Biden.

It was 1970, and Biden had expressed interest in running for a seat on the New Castle County Council. He was a young Wilmington lawyer, and he impressed Mancini, president of the Women's Democratic Club of Delaware.

"We talked to Joe, and we looked at him as though God had sent us a gift," Mancini said. "He's special."

Biden was born in Scranton, Pa., but his family moved to New Castle County soon afterward. He was educated at St. Helena's School in Wilmington and Archmere Academy in Claymont before attending the University of Delaware.

After graduating in 1965, he went to Syracuse University College of Law, graduating in 1968. He was admitted to the bar in 1969 and set up his practice in Wilmington.

A year later, he was elected to the New Castle County Council. In 1972, he ran for the U.S. Senate against two-term incumbent J. Caleb Boggs. Biden won that election at age 29, before he was legally old enough to serve in the Senate. He turned 30 on Nov. 20 that year and was of legal age when he entered the Senate in January 1973. He has been a fixture there ever since. His current term ends on Jan. 3.

Biden has played a major role in developing anti-crime legislation in the past 10 years including the so-called Biden Crime Law in 1994 and the Violence Against Women Act of 2000, a landmark anti-domestic violence law. As chairman of the International Narcotics Control Caucus, Biden also wrote the legislation creating a national "drug czar" to oversee U.S. anti-drug policies.

Those bills, Democrats said, demonstrate Biden's leadership and fitness for an executive post.

As the chariman and top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden has influenced America's relationships with other countries. As the former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee he presided over two of the most famous hearings in its history — those of Bork and Clarence Thomas. Thomas, despite claims that he sexually harassed staff members, made it to the nation's highest court. Bork, a darling of conservative Republicans, did not.

In February 1988, Biden was hospitalized after suffering from two brain aneurysms. He was unable to return to the Senate for seven months. Many pundits thought the combination of health problems and the plagiarism charges would be too much for him to overcome, and that his career was over.

It was not.

He has easily beaten every Republican challenger since then.

In large measure, his success has been due to his ability as a curbside campaigner. Biden has a reputation for shooting from the hip, as he did when he called President Bush "brain-dead" while campaigning for Sen. John Kerry. Republicans were outraged by his comments, but since Biden had also called former Democratic president Clinton brain-dead, many people dismissed the GOP's criticism.

"Joe says what he thinks. He doesn't say things to be popular. He says what's on his mind," said Blaine Breeding, president of the Delaware Young Democrats. "Frankly, I think that's what we need, someone who will tell you the truth straight out without pulling any punches."