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Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at Kingsbury Hall on the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018.

SALT LAKE CITY — Former Vice President Joe Biden talked for almost an hour and a half to an enthusiastic University of Utah audience Thursday, but never mentioned a possible run for president in 2020.

The closest he came was during a discussion about the theme of his book, "Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose," that deals with his eldest son, Beau, being diagnosed with brain cancer and dying less than two years later.

At the time, the Democrat was considering getting in the 2016 presidential race after serving two terms as vice president under President Barack Obama, and had even put together a campaign team.

"(Beau) really wanted me to run for president and I had planned on running for president," Biden said. "I thought I was best-suited to finish what Barack and I had started."

But Biden said his son never asked him to promise he would seek the White House, even though that's how some have interpreted the story in his book about an exchange they had shortly before his son's death in 2015.

"That wasn't the case. It was, 'Promise me you'll stay engaged,'" Biden told the approximately 1,800 students and others filling Kingsbury Hall to capacity toward the end of a speech that focused on what led him to a life in politics.

His son "didn't want me to walk away from what had animated me my entire life," Biden said. Making the promise to his son that he would "be OK" turned out to be a gift, Biden said.

"I found my purpose," he said. "Beau did, in a sense, save me."

That purpose includes the "moonshot" effort Biden launched as vice president to find a cure for cancer that involves the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the U. Many in the audience raised their hands when asked if they'd lost a love one to the disease.

"You'll understand what I'm talking about," Biden said. He offered no other hints about his political plans, even though he has recently said he'll make a decision about 2020 soon.

Because the speech started late to allow the crowd to get through security, there were no questions as planned from the audience. The former vice president did not do any media interviews during his Utah visit.

Mark Matheson, a U. English professor who moderated the onstage conversation, said he intentionally avoided asking about Biden's political future but had not been asked to do so.

The former vice president's appearance was sponsored by the university's MUSE (My U. Signature Experience) Project, an initiative aimed at undergraduate students. This year, the project's theme is "purpose" with Biden's book as the primary text.

Matheson, MUSE director, said students already know that Biden is considering a presidential run.

"The political questions are real and I recognize their value. But our theme was purpose and wisdom and we were happy we were able to draw the vice president out on those things," he said.

Much of what Biden did discuss was the importance of family, a message he also stressed during a private, 45-minute meeting with Rep.-elect Ben McAdams, who is about to become the only Democrat in Congress from Utah.

"He wanted to congratulate me on the race and had a lot of advice to give me about balancing family and a career in Washington," McAdams said. "He said family's always got to be the priority."

McAdams, who narrowly beat outgoing Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah, in the 4th Congressional District, said Biden's phone rang during their conversation at Kingsbury Hall before the speech.

Because the call was from his brother, Biden answered, later explaining that his policy has always been to answer the phone if a family member is calling, McAdams said.

"I was impressed that somebody as busy and as important as the vice president will always make the time for a personal call from his brother," said McAdams, who brought his wife Julie, an attorney for the U., to meet with Biden.

Biden told him that his first run for the Senate was close too, and advised him to "reach out and listen to people," McAdams said, and that as a Democrat, Biden would often hear, "I don't always agree with you, but I sure like you."

McAdams said Biden wasn't forthcoming about his presidential plans in private either, although when talking about how people like to call him Joe, he noted they often tell him, "Run, Joe, run."

During his speech, Biden said he initially turned Obama down when he was asked to be his running mate and didn't change his mind until his family urged him to accept a spot on the ticket.

Biden also spoke of his admiration for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, describing time he spent with members of the church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as one of the "greatest honors of my life."

He said he also received a "most incredible gift" from a church leader as vice president, a seven-volume examination of his family's history dating back to the 1100s.

"I have an extremely soft spot in my heart for this state. I know you vote the other way," he said, to which some members of the audience responded by yelling, "No." Biden received standing ovations both at the beginning and end of his appearance.

At a similar stop in Montana earlier this month, Biden said he is "the most qualified person in the country to be president" and would announce whether he's running within six weeks to two months.

The former Delaware senator was also critical of President Donald Trump at his appearance on the University of Montana campus, saying America "can't have four more years'' of the current administration.

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Tickets were free to U. students and $10 for members of the public. Biden's speaking fee is listed at $100,000 to $200,000 on the All American Entertainment website.

Matheson announced onstage that Biden had agreed to waive his honorarium, but later said he could not disclose the amount because of the terms of the vice president's contract with the campus.

Only about 100 tickets for the packed event were available to the public because of student interest. The stop was the last on Biden's schedule through the end of the year.