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Joe Biden's 2 Improbable Comebacks

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

When former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. accepts the Democratic Party's presidential nomination tonight, he will complete not one but two improbable comebacks. One comeback seemed to happen overnight. The other took a third of a century.

Joining us to recall those events is NPR senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving. Hey, Ron.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Ailsa.

CHANG: Good to be with you. All right. So let's start by talking about the first comeback we just mentioned. This one happened earlier this year during the primaries.

ELVING: Yes. Biden entered the race for 2020 as the putative front-runner, but he immediately ran into trouble. Several of his rivals caught him in a crossfire in the early debates, questioning his credentials as a liberal and implying he was no longer up to the job. Here's rival candidate Julian Castro in the third 2019 debate asking a pointed question.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JULIAN CASTRO: Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago? Are you forgetting already what you said just two minutes ago?

(APPLAUSE, JEERING, CHEERING)

ELVING: Yeah. So Biden hung in through the debates, but the attention was going to other contenders. And that trend continued when we got to the actual voting in February of this year. Biden finished fourth in the Iowa caucuses and sounded pretty downbeat in the next debate that was held in New Hampshire.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE BIDEN: It's a long race. I took a hit in Iowa, and I'll probably take a hit here.

CHANG: That's right. He does take a hit. I mean, Biden finished fifth in New Hampshire, right?

ELVING: All the way out of the money - zero delegates.

CHANG: Ouch.

ELVING: But in the next event in Nevada, he managed to finish second to Sen. Bernie Sanders. It got him to South Carolina, where everything changed.

CHANG: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMES CLYBURN: I want the public to know that I'm voting for Joe Biden. South Carolinians should be voting for Joe Biden.

ELVING: That was a very emotional James Clyburn, the dean of South Carolina's delegation and the highest-ranking African American in Congress. Black voters are a majority in South Carolina's Democratic primary, and Biden carried them overwhelmingly.

CHANG: And that was a real turning point in this race, right? I mean, this is when a number of other candidates dropped out.

ELVING: That's right. And three days later, we had Super Tuesday with 14 states voting. Sanders had been expected to dominate, but Biden wound up taking 10 states that night to Bernie's four.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: For those - for those who've been knocked down, counted out, left behind, this is your campaign.

(CHEERING)

ELVING: The rest of March was much the same, and Sanders conceded early in April. That gave Biden months to mend fences and consolidate the party.

CHANG: Let's talk about the longer-term comeback that we mentioned at the top of this interview.

ELVING: In a way, that was the more astonishing of the two stories. Most Americans alive today hadn't even been born yet or were just starting school when Joe Biden first announced he was running for president at the age of 45.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: We must rekindle the fire of idealism in this country for, ladies and gentlemen, nothing suffocates the promise of America more than unbounded cynicism and indifference.

CHANG: Wow, he sounds so young.

ELVING: Yes, but that summer, he was caught borrowing a lot of his stump speech from a British politician, and Biden ended his campaign after just three months. But he didn't go away. He was a high-profile chairman of the Judiciary Committee at a crucial time in its history and, later, the Foreign Relations Committee. And in the meantime, he kept his White House ambitions on hold. He'd passed on a chance to run in 1992 - that was Bill Clinton's year - and again in 2000 and 2004. But then he joined a field in the next cycle with a passel of other senators, including Hillary Clinton and a freshman from Illinois named Barack Obama.

CHANG: Yeah. And it was during that run that Biden said something very uncomfortable about Obama.

ELVING: That's right. He called Barack Obama, quote, "the first mainstream African American, who is articulate, bright and clean and a nice-looking guy," unquote, to pursue the presidency at that level. Well, Obama shrugged it off. And later, he gave Biden his biggest break - making him his vice president.

CHANG: But it would have made sense for Biden to run again after eight years as vice president to Obama, so tell us why he didn't.

ELVING: Hillary Clinton looked formidable, and Biden also had just lost his son Beau Biden to cancer in 2015. So when he needed to be out on the campaign trail that summer and fall, he decided his heart wasn't in it. But several months after that, he did say he regretted not running, quote, "every day," unquote.

CHANG: Which may be why he decided he still had one more campaign in him here in 2020.

ELVING: And that's why he's going to be on TV tonight, the oldest nominee either major party has ever had and the first to have reached this plateau so many years after first announcing a formal candidacy.

CHANG: That is NPR's Ron Elving. Always enjoyable, Ron. Thank you.

ELVING: Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.