Biden’s First Run for President Was a Calamity. Some Missteps Still Resonate.

But interviews with top advisers and confidants from then and now help explain how Mr. Biden came to see himself as presidential material in the first place, and suggest that the central tensions and vulnerabilities laid bare during Biden ’88 remain the most urgent questions at the core of Biden 2020:

Can he credibly present himself as a man in step with the times without sounding off-key or stretching the truth, as he did while gilding his 1960s-era biography?

Can he win while mounting another campaign premised as much on personal characteristics — his decency, his integrity, his presumed electability — as any particular policy platform?

In both the 1988 race and today, Mr. Biden has seemed to see the nation at a turning point, in need of a particular kind of leader.

During his first run, he liked to say that presidential history ran in cycles: bursts of progress and upheaval, followed by periods of correction in which voters choose a candidate who can “let America catch its breath.”

His implication then, as a 44-year-old senator from Delaware, was that he belonged to the first group of political figures: the sprightly agitators. His pitch this time, as a septuagenarian two-term vice president, places him firmly in the second camp: He is now the stabilizing statesman, in his telling, poised to deliver the nation from the Trumpian tumult.

“It’s kind of funny in retrospect,” said Mike Lux, a top Biden aide in Iowa in 1988. “A lot of the message was based on sort of ‘time for generational change.’ Now, he is sort of the opposite of the changing of the guard.”

These days, Mr. Biden, whose campaign declined to make him available for an interview, keeps an understated schedule, holding far fewer events than most rivals. But in his first race, his candidacy could feel like an exercise in performative stamina — sustained by an uncommon talent for talk-until-they-leave speechifying and an oversize bottle of Tylenol that helped ease foreboding headaches on the road.

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