When Joe Biden was growing up as a Catholic boy in Pennsylvania and Delaware, his car-salesman father, who loathed self-pity, gave his son some advice that has helped him endure some of the toughest moments of his 77 years: “Get up!”
“That was his phrase and it has echoed through my life,” Mr Biden wrote in his autobiography, Promises to Keep. It helped him tackle small problems — like when a “girl’s parents won’t let her go out with a Catholic boy” — and to survive trauma, such as when his wife and baby daughter were killed in a car crash weeks after his 1972 election as US senator from Delaware.
Mr Biden hinted that those words were once again on his mind when he spoke in Los Angeles on Super Tuesday after surging into first place in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. It came three days after a crushing victory in South Carolina rescued his campaign by providing a big enough margin to force almost all his moderate rivals to quit the race. “For those who’ve been knocked down, counted out, left behind: this is your campaign,” Mr Biden bellowed jubilantly.
For the six-term senator, who chaired the foreign relations committee and spent eight years as Barack Obama’s vice-president, it was a gratifying moment. After five decades in politics and two failed presidential bids, his victory in South Carolina was his first ever in a presidential primary. He ran for the nomination in 1988, but withdrew before any voting after being accused of plagiarising a speech by Neil Kinnock, former British Labour leader. In 2008, he quit after winning less than 1 per cent of the vote in the first contest in Iowa.
The comeback was even sweeter because Mr Biden had been the frontrunner for much of last year, until he began a gradual slide that ended in collapse in Iowa and New Hampshire. After the first two races, he insisted that South Carolina, where 60 per cent of the Democratic electorate are African-American, would be his “firewall” since voters trusted the man who had been wingman for “my buddy, Barack”.
But his allies were anxious. Six days before the primary, Jim Clyburn, the veteran South Carolina congressman and highest-ranking African-American in Congress, told the Financial Times that he agreed with Biden fans who thought his campaign was lackadaisical.
Mr Biden had launched his run saying he wanted to “restore the soul of the nation”. Over the past year, however, he had largely hidden his own soul. Friends wondered why he was more restrained than his old self, a loquacious Irish-American who told stories about how a working-class kid became a senator at 29. Some thought he was just getting old; others that he was holding back as a result of changing social norms that are less tolerant of a touchy-feely old man, out of touch with modern America.
At times, his gaffe-prone public appearances have fuelled concerns about his suitability as a candidate for the top job. His defenders say that won’t matter if he runs against a president who has a casual relationship with the truth.
Either way, voters saw less of the man who was at his best when speaking about hardship and pain with empathy, whether to union workers, farmers or families of military veterans.
“Joe Biden has experienced a great deal of personal tragedy in his life and understands other people’s suffering,” said Martha Steffensmeier, 89, who got a big hug at one Iowa rally. “He is a man of strong empathy and character.” But while he gave authentic embraces and took selfies, critics complained his stump speech was merely a recitation of his resume for beating President Donald Trump. He read from a script and rarely took questions.
Mr Clyburn said Mr Biden had made a “terrible mistake” by not talking more about his life story. When he met Mr Biden secretly last month aboard the USS Yorktown, a second world war-era aircraft carrier moored in Charleston, he delivered a stark warning.
Mr Biden heeded that advice. Before the South Carolina vote, he was praised for his tearful response to a reverend whose wife was killed when a white supremacist opened fire inside Mother Emanuel, a black church in Charleston, in 2015. The attack came shortly after Mr Biden’s eldest son, Beau, died of cancer — prompting Mr Biden to decide not to challenge Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination in 2016.
“I don’t know how you’ve dealt with it Reverend? But the way I’ve been able to deal with it when my wife was killed and my daughter was killed and my son died [was] . . . realising they’re part of my being,” he said. “Beau was my soul.”
Mr Biden’s second son, Hunter, has been a target for Mr Trump because of his connection to the Ukraine scandal that sparked the president’s impeachment, and is expected to remain so if Mr Biden wins the nomination. Although Mr Trump has raised the issue often in recent months, there is little evidence it resonated with Democratic voters.
Despite the Biden campaign’s recovery and a platform that is further left than that of prior nominees from his party, he still faces stiff competition from his socialist rival, Bernie Sanders.
Yet, for now, he seems to have rekindled his spark. In Los Angeles, he quoted the Irish poet Seamus Heaney: “History says don’t hope on this side of the grave, but then once in a lifetime the longed-for tidal wave of justice can rise up, and hope and history rhyme.” By the end of the night in which Mr Biden swept the south, from Virginia to Texas, it was clear he had gotten back up.