2020 Election
January 30, 2020 11:56 AM EST

At a campaign event in Council Bluffs, Iowa on Wednesday night, a couple hundred people listened to Joe Biden describe what he plans to do if he wins his 2020 presidential bid: he’ll re-join the Paris Climate Accord, legislate a pathway to citizenship for immigrants, and reverse some of President Donald Trump’s tariff-heavy trade policies. But throughout the nearly two-hour event, the former Vice President routinely returned to an overarching theme: pain and suffering. His own. Other people’s. The nation’s.

Directly addressing a group of local firefighters in the crowd, Biden rattled through a litany of personal tragedies in which he has relied on first-responders: the 1972 car accident that claimed the lives of his first wife and his baby daughter, the 1980s cranial aneurysm that required he undergo a 13-hour surgery in the middle of a snowstorm, and the 2004 lightning strike that set his home ablaze. “They come, and god forbid, you lose your house, your house burns down — they are out there with a boot on the corner raising money to help you rebuild your house,” he said.

Biden’s comments were about gratitude and community, but they also hammered on a broader subtext of his campaign: Biden’s experience with personal sorrow will make him a better Commander-in-Chief. It’s a message that appeared to resonate with supporters.

“On any given day, a President has to deal with a number of really wrenching situations. A President has to be able to respond to those,” Christie Vilsack, the former first lady of Iowa and a close personal friend of Biden, tells TIME. Biden’s personal history prepares him for those moments, she adds. “Because Joe Biden has suffered. I think it’s easier [for him] to understand.”

Kent Cooper, a firefighter of 21 years, who was at the Council Bluffs event, agrees. The other Democratic candidates respect first-responders, he says, but they don’t necessarily understand the risks and grief that can be inherent to the job in the way that Biden does. “I don’t think they really know what our jobs are,” he says. “I mean, that goes for law enforcement and everybody.”

Biden’s speech on Wednesday also touched on financial suffering, a reality for many Americans. “You all probably come from families like I do. We never thought we were poor, but I guess we were lower-middle class in terms of income,” he said. “There was never any time when we had an abundance of anything, but we had family, we had values. We all cared about the same things you guys care about in Iowa: decency, honor, commitment, something bigger than yourself, knowing it’s not just all about you.”

According to an average of reputable polls tabulated by Real Clear Politics, Biden remains the guy to beat, leading by 4 percentage points nationally. In Iowa, which will be the first state in the nation to select a nominee on Monday, polls show Biden narrowly trailing Sen. Bernie Sanders.

“You can’t go into a room with Joe Biden where he isn’t talking to someone who has been suffering, and showing the compassion he is so well known for,” Vilsack said onstage after Biden finished speaking. “I want my President to have suffered, and he certainly has.”

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Write to Abby Vesoulis at abby.vesoulis@time.com.

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