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Joe Biden takes his time in deciding on a 2016 presidential run

In many ways, Vice President Joe Biden should be well positioned to run for president in 2016.

He's spent over six years as the second-in-command under President Obama. He's an established political figure in his own right, boasting a vast resume and a deep well of political contacts after 30-plus years in the Senate. He's a savvy retail politician who's demonstrated an ability to connect with his audience on a visceral level. And he's fluent in the populist language about middle class opportunity and inequality that Democrats are already using to frame the 2016 election.

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In a normal election year, that kind of record could make Biden an early favorite for his party's nod - but 2016 is not looking like a normal election year. For one, early primary polls indicate a huge majority of Democrats see former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton - not Biden - as the president's heir-apparent.

The vice president also faces doubts about his age - he would be 74 on Election Day 2016. And while his fulsome public speaking can endear him to his audiences, it also carries the potential for gaffes.

And in spite of his age, it seems that Biden is in no hurry. He is waiting for something that will help make up his mind. He has kept the door open to a run, insisting he won't be dissuaded by his competition or his age. And he may soon pick up the pace of visits to states with early voting contests. He dropped by Iowa last week and a visit to South Carolina is coming.

He has not, however, shown any signs of laying any groundwork for a campaign, the Associated Press points out. Biden has a lot of friends in these states from his decades in politics, but he has not set up any exploratory committees, PACs or begun to hire the kind of key staff necessary for primary season. The AP quoted Biden on his trip to Des Moines, Iowa, last week, "I've been here a lot, I have a lot of friends, I'm going to see some of my friends (in the Legislature)...I'm not doing any organization, if that's what you mean."

Biden, who has run two presidential campaigns already, will not be hurried in deciding on a third. He has said more than once that he'd decide on whether to run by the end of summer.

How Biden became Biden

Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr., was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1942, the oldest of four siblings in an Irish Catholic family. His upbringing was marked by some hardship, as his father struggled to find enough work to support the family. It was an experience that profoundly shaped Biden's worldview.

"Dad never failed to remind us that a job is about a lot more than a paycheck," he said during his speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. "It's about your dignity. It's about respect."

Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist who's working with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, one of Biden's potential primary rivals, told CBS News Biden's working class background could be a strong selling point in 2016.

"The next election is likely to be about the great economic division that's occurring in America right now," Devine said. "Biden will have an easy time talking about it because he can talk about it from his own perspective, his own story."

Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University, argued Biden can speak to middle class concerns more fluently than Clinton, who has at times struggled to project the kind of populism that comes naturally to the vice president. "He's in some ways very much a New Deal Democrat who's concerned about what the government does to help the middle class," Zelizer explained. "I don't think it's hard for him to talk about this. This is who he is."

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Biden met his first wife, Neilia Hunter, in 1964, and the two married in 1966. He attended law school at Syracuse University after college at the University of Delaware. In 1972, after a brief stint in local politics, he ran for the U.S. Senate against an incumbent nobody expected him to beat. He pulled out a narrow victory, becoming the sixth youngest senator to be elected in U.S. history.

In December 1972, after his victory but before he assumed office, Biden's wife and infant daughter were killed in a car crash in Delaware. Biden considered resigning to care for his sons Hunter and Beau, who were injured in the same wreck, but he ultimately decided to keep his day job. Over the next few decades, Biden would commute every day by train to work in Washington, D.C. from Delaware to be able to care for his sons, earning the nickname "Amtrak Joe."

Devine says the trauma of that experience gave Biden "a tremendous amount of empathy for people who are dealing with difficult situations," and he said that empathy has allowed Biden to connect with people on a gut level throughout his long career.

In the Senate, Biden dove into foreign and domestic affairs, at times chairing both the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee. Among other accomplishments, he played a key role in defeating the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court in 1987, and he was credited with shepherding the Violence Against Women Act to passage in 1994 - a legislative achievement he's described as the "most significant" of his career.

Biden first ran for president in 1988, but that bid was ultimately felled by a plagiarism scandal. Shortly after he dropped out of that race, he nearly died of a ruptured brain aneurysm. A second aneurysm was discovered shortly thereafter, but it was removed before it burst. Since his brush with mortality, Biden has enjoyed a relatively clean bill of health.

He ran for president again in 2008 but failed to gain traction against Clinton and Obama, who were the dominant figures in the race. After a disappointing fifth place showing in the Iowa Caucuses, he dropped out. Then-Sen. Obama selected Biden as his running mate in August 2008, and the two cruised to victory in November and assumed office the following January.

As vice president, Biden has said he's frequently "the last person in the room" when Mr. Obama makes a decision. His first major task was overseeing the implementation of the $787 billion stimulus package, and he's been credited with keeping the waste, fraud, and abuse in the massive spending bill to a minimum. He's also been Mr. Obama's go-to negotiator with congressional Republicans, helping to broker a series of fiscal deals with Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. He was an aggressive voice within the administration advocating the drawdown U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, often disagreeing with Mr. Obama's other advisers on the issue, and he chaired the gun violence task force the president commissioned in the wake of the 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

"He hasn't been quiet, that's for sure," Zelizer said, describing Biden as a very consequential force within the administration. "He's served as a liaison to Congress in an administration that has problems with congressional relations, [and] he's been a voice for issues that sometimes the administration or the president for either political or strategic reasons isn't willing to talk about."

More than any other Democrat, Biden will own the record of the Obama administration if he decides to run for president in 2016. The latest CBS News poll shows that 46 percent of Americans approve of the job Mr. Obama is doing, and the same percentage disapprove. Most Democrats give him credit for bringing the U.S. economy back, and that could give Biden a leg up in the primary. "The fact that he's been such a strong V.P. and so supportive of the president has put him in good standing with Democratic primary voters," Devine said.

But that association could complicate a general election campaign, particularly if Mr. Obama's approval ratings remain under 50 percent, and the Democratic nominee is forced to seek some distance from the current administration. Biden still signaled the opposite during a recent speech in Iowa, saying that he's prepared to go to the mat defending the administration - and he warned other Democrats that they'll have to do the same. So part of Biden's calculus for running may well depend which direction the president's approval takes.

"Those seeking to lead the nation should protect and defend and run, yes run, on what we've done; own what we have done," he said. "Some say that would amount to a third term of the president. I call it sticking with what works and what we oughta do."

Biden's gaffes: Asset or liability?

Biden has often boasted, "No one ever doubts I mean what I say, [but] sometimes I say all that I mean." This penchant for candid, off-script moments lends him the kind of authenticity many political figures will never be able to cultivate.

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Biden's "propensity to say what he thinks is an asset, not a liability," Devine said. "People are desperate for politicians who will tell the truth. If you show up and you're really leveling with people, even if they don't agree with you, you're going to get a lot of points."

But his frank, sometimes off-color commentary has also opened Biden to criticism at times, and some Democrats privately worry that he's too undisciplined a messenger to carry the party to victory in 2016.

"There's tons of fear about that" within the Democratic Party, Zelizer said. "You just don't know what he's going to say."

Here's a look at some of the moments when Biden has seemed to trip over his tongue:

  • When Mr. Obama was signing the Affordable Care Act in 2010 - the biggest domestic achievement of his presidency to date - Biden leaned into the president and remarked, "This is a big f**king deal." The quip, intended for the president's ears only, was overheard by the army of reporters who attended the signing ceremony. The White House laughed off the moment, with then-press secretary Robert Gibbs tweeting, "And yes, Mr. Vice President, you're right..."
  • In a 2012 appearance on "Meet the Press," Biden was asked about his position on gay marriage, and he said he was "absolutely comfortable" with it. That was a break from the administration's stated position - Mr. Obama said his views on the subject were still "evolving" - and the remark landed Biden in the doghouse. Just days later, though, Mr. Obama voiced his own support for same-sex marriage, and many have credited Biden's disclosure with accelerating the president's own change of heart.
  • Addressing House Democrats during the nadir of the economic downturn in 2009, Biden acknowledged the possibility that the administration's economic prescriptions might not work: "If we do everything right, if we do it with absolute certainty, there's still a 30 percent chance we're going to get it wrong." The White House, which was busy touting the newly-passed stimulus package as precisely what the economy needed, was furious.
  • Biden's 2008 campaign got off to a rocky start in 2007, when he described Mr. Obama as "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." The remark struck more than a few observers as a backhanded, even slightly racist, compliment, and Biden promptly apologized in a statement, saying he "deeply regret[s] any offense" he caused. Mr. Obama gave his future vice president a pass, suggesting the country had more pressing problems to manage than Biden's foot-in-mouth disease.

Why Biden might not run

Perhaps the biggest impediment to a Biden candidacy in 2016 is the dominance of Clinton over the rest of the potential primary field, even though she has yet to declare her candidacy.

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As senators and members of the Obama administration, Biden and Clinton have forged a strong friendship and partnership through the years, and many doubt that Biden would run against Clinton if she decides to launch a bid - an outcome that looks all but certain at this point.

"Everybody recognizes that Hillary's going to be an enormously formidable candidate in the nominating process," Devine said. "She's going to be really tough for Biden or for anyone else to take on."

"The vice president should be the person to get [the nomination]," Zelizer added, "but that's not going to happen here." He argued Clinton would "really have to show some sign of weakness" to give Biden an opening.

If Clinton doesn't run, Biden would have a far easier time claiming the nomination, thanks to his deep resume and high name recognition. Even so, he'd likely have to fend off challenges from other Democrats whose plans have, to date, been effectively frozen by Clinton.

But Biden's age could also weigh heavily on his decision about a 2016 presidential run. As mentioned before, he will be 74 years old on Election Day 2016 - older than any U.S. president ever elected to a first term.

"I do think it's a factor," Zelizer said of Biden's age. "Right now there's a preference for a little younger candidate...Being an older white man will say to some voters, this is the same kind of Democrat. We're at a moment when the party wants newness." And while Clinton would face some of the same concerns -- she'll be 69 on Election Day -- the prospect of a female commander in chief would lend her an aura of freshness that Biden will lack, Zelizer argued.

Still, the vice president enjoys a reputation for vitality and exuberance that could help diminish concerns about his advanced age - watch the man work a rope line and thunder his message from a podium, and you begin to understand why. Devine said, "This is not a guy who looks like he's looking for a wheelchair - he's a very active guy."

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