PHILADEPHIA (AFP) — Democrat Joe Biden aimed his frontrunner campaign directly at Donald Trump on Saturday, attacking him as the “divider-in-chief” and insisting the nation’s top priority is denying the US president reelection in 2020.
The former vice president kicked off his White House bid with an impassioned call for fairness and equality in the country, urging voters to end the mean-spirited pettiness and partisan squabbles that have left Americans angry and dispirited in recent years.
“This nation needs to come together,” the veteran politician told a crowd estimated at 6,000 in Philadelphia, in the largest rally of his nascent campaign.
“Our president is the divider-in-chief,” he added, accusing Trump of demonizing opponents and using scapegoats to fuel animosity.
“If the American people want a president to add to our division, to lead with a clenched fist, closed hand and a hard heart, to demonize opponents and spew hatred, they don’t need me,” Biden said in a raised voice. “They’ve got President Donald Trump.”
Biden, 76, sits atop the pack of 2020 contenders, relishing his prime position.
No one knows whether the man who served as number two to popular Democratic president Barack Obama for eight years will run away with this contest — his third White House bid in as many decades — or fade out in the months-long primary test of political skill and stamina to come.
But the Senate veteran who has emerged as a Democratic Party eminence appeared to bypass the jockeying with his Democratic rivals, as he geared up for a titanic general election battle against Trump.
After a month of modest events at union halls and pizza joints in early-voting states like Iowa, Biden’s launch in the city he called “the birthplace of our democracy” signals the importance of winning back Pennsylvania, a state Trump snatched in 2016.
Biden was born and raised in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and the rally was a nod to his modest roots.
But far from being the underdog, Biden is looking to cement his status as the man to beat.
He is a blue-collar voter whisperer who claims he is best positioned to defeat Trump. But Biden must also balance the concern that while he is the most experienced candidate out there, he embodies the very establishment that Trump voters rebelled against in 2016.
“Maybe he’s a little bit establishment, but he was always Joe from Scranton,” Mickey Kirzecky, a health care consultant at the rally, told AFP.
“He still has that, and I think that’s going to be tough for Trump to fight.”
Biden has drawn criticism for his delayed entry in the race, amid concern he may not be ready to mount an energized campaign. But the slow-and-steady strategy appears to be paying off.
Polls give Biden a growing lead over the 22 other hopefuls.
The latest RealClearPolitics aggregate puts him at 39.1 percent support, more than double the 16.4 percent of his nearest rival, liberal Senator Bernie Sanders.
No one else is in double digits.
But as voters start paying more attention, Biden — who to date has campaigned mostly in broad strokes — will be under pressure to flesh out positions on everything from health care and wages to immigration.
Some rivals have already hit out at Biden over reports he plans to unveil a “middle ground” approach to tackling climate change.
Biden played on the criticism, quipping, “If you want to know what the first and most important plan in my climate proposal is: Beat Trump. Beat Trump. Beat Trump.”
While Biden acknowledged Democrats need not go toe to toe with Republicans on every issue, and that compromise was “not a dirty word,” he kept the heat on the president, saying he “embraces dictators and tyrants like [Vladimir] Putin and Kim Jong Un.”
Biden has aligned himself closely with Obama, drawing major support from African-American voters, and he went out of his way Saturday to highlight their alliance and to praise Obama’s “courage,” character and vision.
In doing so he took another swipe at the current Republican president, who has routinely boasted about the well-performing US economy.
“President Trump inherited an economy from the Obama/Biden administration that was given to him, just like he inherited everything else in his life,” he said.
Biden styles himself, like Trump, as an ardent defender of working-class Americans, someone who can win back the Midwestern, white, male blue-collar voters who went for the Republican in 2016.
Trump has insisted he does not see Biden “as a threat.”
But he has bestowed a negative nickname on his rival — “Sleepy Joe” — and scheduled a campaign rally for Monday in northern Pennsylvania, near Scranton.