Joe Biden said he had run out of time when he chose not to run against Hillary Clinton in 2016.
As the Democratic Party front-runner this time, aged 76, the main problem has been his inability to stand out.
A crowded field worked against the former vice president, with younger rivals sometimes criticising him to distinguish themselves and make him look out of date.
But on Monday night at a Town Hall event in Iowa there was no one to eclipse him.
Alone on stage, a more authoritative Mr Biden emerged. Anecdotes about his family and political career landed.
Supporters hope his folksy character, empathy and experience will prevail in the Democratic primary, giving him the chance to unseat Donald Trump next November.
The strong showing in Iowa came not a minute too early.
Elizabeth Warren briefly moved level in polling last month.
The Ukraine scandal, with Republicans accusing Mr Biden's son, Hunter of profiting from his links to the White House, is baggage and the “Sleepy Joe” nickname given by Mr Trump lingers.
But on stage with no time limit and no one shouting him down, Mr Biden seemed more assured.
He went after Ms Warren's Medicare for All plan, saying she has yet to work out how much it would cost and claiming its one-size-fits-all approach was elitist because it denied choice.
He said Mr Trump must be among the most corrupt people to hold the office and that impeachment hearings, which start in Washington on Wednesday, were justified.
If Mr Biden were elected as the next president, he said, Democrats and Republicans would begin to work together again, a far cry from Capitol Hill at present.
It was optimistic stuff but warning signs remain.
The decision last week of former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg to begin a campaign for the Democratic nomination speaks volumes.
The worry is that despite a host of candidates. maybe none can win against Mr Trump.
Mr Bloomberg, a lifelong Democrat who switched to the Republicans when he became mayor, only to later become an independent, certainly thinks so.
But the best message from Mr Biden came when recalling the tragedies he has faced. His first wife and infant daughter died in a car crash in 1972, which injured his sons. His son Beau died of brain cancer four years ago.
Hearing the problems of others is considered Mr Biden's strength, but in doing so he tends to praise others, including his family, rather than himself.
“When you're the recipient of someone's understanding and empathy you can understand how it can help and it's just impossible not share with others,” he told the audience in Iowa.
“People come up to me often. They'll walk up to me and all of a sudden a man or woman will just grab me and hug me and say, 'I just lost my son, lost my daughter, tell me, am I going to be OK, am I going to be OK?'”
It is hard to imagine Mr Trump or Mr Bloomberg telling such a story.