Mo Joe

How the bear-hugging, pain-feeling, close-talking, heart-on-his-sleeve Vice President became the Obama campaign's not-so-secret weapon

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Marco Grob for TIME

Vice President Joe Biden

Until you have seen Joe Biden work a firehouse, you ain't never seen it done. It's Mantle at the plate, Baryshnikov in Leningrad, Coltrane at the Half Note. There are no simple grin-and-grips, no formalities for the cameras. His jacket is off. His hair is barely there. He's 69 years old, leaning in, all eye contact, teeth and heart--grabbing, smiling, spilling his guts on the floor.

"Hey, man," says the Vice President of the United States, holding out a hand to each of the 13 firemen who stand rigid at attention, arms behind their backs in front of a polished red rig in Salem, Ohio, during the third week of May. "You guys underestimate yourselves. You guys underestimate your own impact." This is what they probably expect, what dozens of politicians would say, about all the extra work firefighters have done since 9/11 even as the Great Recession threatened head counts. But Biden is just getting started.

"I'm alive because of my fire company," he says after a pause. "My kids are alive." Then he tells the story again. It's 1972. He's just been elected to the U.S. Senate as a 29-year-old kid. A big rig broadsides the family car. "My wife killed and my daughter. Pray to God. My two sons were saved by my fire company--my fire company. And the Jaws of Life. It's you guys." He's talking quietly now. He's told the story 1,000 times. But he's not done.

"I had a cranial aneurysm," he continues. It's 1988, just months after he abandoned his first run for the White House. He has to get from Wilmington, Del., to the top brain surgeon at Walter Reed. President Reagan offers to dispatch Marine One, but the altitude could kill him. "My fire company, in the only snowstorm that year, got me down. My fire company." There's more, from the summer of 2004. Lightning strikes--the real thing. His wife Jill finds fire spreading in the family home. The local guys have it out in no time at all. The house--pretty much the only possession Biden has to show for four decades in government--is saved. "Every important thing in my life, literally," says Biden. "Life-and-death stuff."

The firemen have relaxed; their arms hang at their sides. They get it now. This is what Biden does, what he has been doing for years with voters, with fellow Senators, with foreign leaders. He gets up close and makes them understand that he understands. In Iraq, he knows the names of the faction leaders' kids; he even took Massoud Barzani's grandson in the motorcade to see Air Force Two the last time he was there. In the Senate, both Republican Strom Thurmond and Democrat Robert Byrd asked him to give them eulogies. Out on the trail, it's tangible. Like Bill Clinton before him, he has to win every room. "I'm a fingertip politician," he tells people.

But this is no longer just about Joe. In northeastern Ohio, at the edge of coal country where they make American Standard bathtubs, John McCain won the county by 7 points in 2008, and Mitt Romney is looking to do much better. Those highly prized middle-class white voters whom pollsters gush over--the ones who have been hurting and frustrated for years, who were always skeptical of the new President with the funny name--this is where they reside, a block or two from the Wing Warehouse and Ricky's English Pub. So Biden makes his pivot. "The President," he tells the firemen, "feels as strongly about this as I do."

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