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With unique place in presidential politics, Biden to take the stage in Charlotte

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Vice President Joe Biden occupies a unique place in the politics of 2012 and will get his moment in the spotlight Thursday night when he addresses the convention in Charlotte before President Barack Obama, once again accepting his party’s nomination as the second half of of the Democratic ticket.

Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden explains whether his father will run for the presidency in 2016 and also discusses the vice president's less prominent role during this week's DNC.

Of the four men running for national office, Biden has by far the longest history as a national figure. His career as an elected official is longer than the other three men's careers combined.

Elected to the Senate at age 29, when Richard Nixon was president and the Vietnam War was at its height, Biden was first elected to public office – the New Castle County Council in Delaware – the same year that Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan was born: 1970.

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In fact, Biden might well have been elected president a quarter century ago. He was a strong contender for the 1988 Democratic nomination, but was forced to quit the race after admitting that  he’d lifted certain distinctive phrases from British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock in one of his campaign speeches. He also admitted that he’d committed plagiarism in law school.

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But if the phrase “senior statesman” implies caution, somberness and a certain gravitas, Biden is not quite an exact fit. Even after 42 years in politics, the vice president remains as spontaneous and irrepressible as ever.

Campaigning three weeks ago in Danville, Va., he caused a stir by using the phrase “They're going to put you all back in chains,” to a largely African-American audience when describing Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s approach to deregulation of Wall Street and the financial sector.

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Last week he approached two men – whom he apparently thought were Greek-Americans – in a restaurant in Warren, Ohio, by saying, “I’m Joe Bidenopoulos.”

At the Republican convention last week, when Clint Eastwood came on stage and told the empty chair representing Obama that “You’re getting as bad as Biden,” he didn’t need to explain what that meant: prone to blurting things out. (At the White House signing of the health care overhaul law, Biden said to Obama, "This is a big f----ing deal.")

Yet despite his reputation for unscripted moments, Biden retains a deep reservoir of support from Democratic activists in states such as Iowa, where the jockeying for the 2016 nomination will soon begin.

Iowa delegate Dean Genth, from Mason City, said Thursday, “Joe Biden has a really special place in my heart, as a gay delegate, because a long time ago, back in 2008, during that campaign season he told me personally how important same-sex rights and equality were for him. He looked me in the eye and took my hand and said, ‘Dean, you know I’m going to fight all the way for all the equality we can for our LGBT community.’”

John Brecher / NBC News

Dean Genth at the Iowa delegation's breakfast on Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012, in Charlotte, North Carolina during the DNC.

Genth said, “He was out ahead (of the other 2008 presidential contenders) and it really came from a well-thought-out position. It wasn’t something he was just doing to pander for votes. It was a part of his core being.”

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Another Iowa delegate, Cedar Rapids lawyer Sara Riley, was a fervent Biden supporter when he ran for the 2008 nomination. “He was the most prepared” to be president, Riley said Thursday.

She vividly recalls a speech Biden gave on Sept. 10, 2001, in which he said the threat to America wouldn’t come from a nuclear missile attack, but from a terrorist plot in a plane or the hold of a cargo ship. “It was amazing. He literally outlined what the biggest threat to our country was and the very next day Sept. 11 happened,” Riley said.

John Brecher / NBC News

Sara Riley at the Iowa delegation's breakfast on Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012, in Charlotte, North Carolina during the DNC.

Well-settled into his vice-presidential role, there’s no doubt Biden found it exasperating four years ago when he had to vie with Obama and Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination.

"It’s awful hard, understandably, to get above the sort of celebrities,” Biden told a coffee shop crowd in LeMars, Iowa, as he campaigned in September 2007. “It’s a pretty cool thing” that one Democratic presidential contender was an African-American and another was a woman, he said, but “it sucked all the oxygen out of the air.”

At that coffee shop in LeMars, a woman named Carrie Kappen told Biden, “I want to vote for a president who speaks like you, who looks like you, who will tell it like it is like you. How can we get you to be above Mrs. Clinton and Obama? You need to be number one!”

Not missing a beat, Biden replied, “I love you. My wife is down the street, but will you marry me?”

Biden’s flair for humor often overshadows his serious accomplishments, and especially his role in shaping the Supreme Court’s membership.

The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd previews Thursday's DNC lineup, which includes speeches by Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama.

In 1987, as Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Biden led the successful Democratic effort to defeat Ronald Reagan’s archconservative Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork. That led Reagan ultimately to appoint Anthony Kennedy to the high court, where the justice has proven to be the decisive swing vote.

But Biden was unable to stop Clarence Thomas in 1991. And he was outmaneuvered by John Roberts and Samuel Alito, President George W. Bush’s Supreme Court nominees, during their confirmation hearings.

The 2012 campaign may be the last hurrah for Biden – or might be a prelude to a run for president in four years.

As for this year, Biden, who will turn 70 on Nov. 20, knows how to campaign and hasn’t grown tired of it. He still seems to draw his energy from crowds, usually lingering to shake hands and clasp the cheeks of adoring fans long after his remarks conclude.

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On the campaign trail, in between visits to the union halls and auto dealerships where he makes his blue-collar pitch, he relishes impromptu visits to high school football practices, Dairy Queens and fire stations. While some other surrogates are busy making targeted pitches to niche voters, Biden is often moving through small towns, ordering milkshakes and doling out advice to football running backs before the glare of the Friday night lights.

First lady Michelle Obama speaks to NBC's Brian Williams about keeping life balanced for her daughters. She is focused on keeping their lives as normal as possible while allowing them to appreciate their chance to witness history.

Of course, Biden has made his share of pitches to other constituencies, serving as Obama's ambassador to major gatherings of black and Latino supporters.

But his bread and butter remains constant appeals to organized labor groups. Within the past several months, he has spoken to the International Association of Fire Fighters and the American Federation of Teachers. His travels to Michigan and Ohio typically involve at least one stop at a UAW hall where he lashes Mitt Romney for opposing the auto bailout.

Visitors to his suite at the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, N.C., on the first night of the Democratic convention included the heads of the AFL-CIO, National Education Association and the Service Employees International Union.

There’s still sometimes the sense that Biden feels a need to show he’s not inferior – one thing that scuttled his 1988 presidential bid. A New Hampshire voter asked Biden where he had gone to law school and how well he had done. “I think I probably have a much higher IQ than you do," Biden replied testily.

Slideshow: Democratic National Convention

On the campaign trail this year, Biden never hesitates to remind voters of his close relationship with Obama.

"I spend four to six hours a day with him every single day since we got elected, with the exception of the last five weeks when we've both been campaigning," Biden bragged recently. "I can tell you and I've known eight presidents, three of them intimately," he added, winning giggles from a few in the audience.

NBC News’ Carrie Dann contributed to this report.